Movie Review: On The Road

Sam Riley as Sal Paradise in “On the Road”

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Derogatory dismissals of prosaic visual experiences have been around since, well, someone was bored to tears. We’ve heard such poetic hyperbole as watching paint dry. Or grass grow. In Walter Salles’ On the Road, we can now add to that lexicon by suggesting that this film is as riveting as watching a writer write. This isn’t metaphorical; we are forced to watch the Kerouac character, the budding bebop voice of his generation, scribble his thoughts on notepads as he wends his way through the Great American landscape, from the start of his road trip in 1948 to December, 1951. Not just one road trip but many; not just one destination but rather a veritable map of routes traversing and double-backing as far south as Mexico, as far north as Quebec, covering all parts in between. Is this a drama or an examination of mid-20th century U.S. highways?

Salles’ attempt to turn Jack Kerouac’s seminal, rangy novel “On the Road” — reflecting the late ’40s through mid-’50s mindset of the Beat Generation — may be earnest but, ironically, proves why a successful book-to-film adaptation has faltered for over five decades. Kerouac’s lyrical reflections are as firmly anchored to the page as the type font itself.

It seems that filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman had faced a similar challenge with 2010′s Howl, the creatively daring interpretation of the life and works of Beat artist Allen Ginsberg (played by James Franco). Rather than holding to a strict adherence, they solved the problem of bringing the epic poem to screen by presenting three disparate elements melded into one filmic fugue: biopic, animation and faux documentary. Not that this may have been the answer with On the Road, but it sure beats a travelogue … or, rather, a travel bog.

Speaking of the travelogue, credit must be paid to Eric Gautier’s exquisite cinematography, presenting a priceless snapshot of an America long gone. Additionally, Gustavo Santaolalla’s jazzy, period-flavored soundtrack smartly meanders through, contributing far more texture than the script itself.

Director Salles and screenwriter José Rivera use the death of Kerouac’s father to set the film in motion. Shortly following the funeral, Jack Kerouac a/k/a Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is introduced to Neal Cassady a/k/a Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) … and before you can say “Tank up the Hudson,” Sam, Dean and Dean’s 16-year-old wife LuAnne Henderson a/k/a Marylou (Kristen Stewart) are criss-crossing the country. Part personal odyssey, part joy ride, part rationale to avoid maturity or, in Dean’s case, his on and off commitments to his many partners, the film never quite digs deep enough into these characters to allow us to care about what they do or where they go. Because if all you do is aimlessly wander around the country, then that popular saying, “It’s not the destination but the journey” rings as hollow as this movie’s core.

(background): Sam Riley; (foreground): Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund

Hedlund (Tron: Legacy, Country Song) as the dashing, irresponsible ladies’ man Dean certainly looks like he’s full of angst. If only he’d been given a revelatory scene or two. Riley’s Sal does his best as the faithful narrator who, as the representative chronicler, dutifully scribbles – but leaves us figuratively pressing our noses at the cinematic window, wondering just what he’s writing. (An additional cynical thought springs to mind … perhaps all this obfuscation is nothing more than a multi-income stream campaign cooked up by the studio, i.e., You don’t remember “On the Road”? Want to know more about what Jack/Sal wrote? Hey, we’ve got the novelization tie-in right here.) However, playing the manically funny Ginsberg who suffers unrequited love for Dean, Tom Sturridge is a stand-out. It’s a relief to see a character writ large, overflowing with emotion and commitment. When he disappears for numerous scenes at a time, his absence is noticeable. As for Kristen Stewart, the hope that this actress is now mature enough to branch out and immerse herself in a character other than Twilight‘s Bella is quickly, disappointingly dispelled. While the other actors appear strong, albeit in need of some sound writing, Stewart simply registers as weak.

Appearing all too briefly, Viggo Mortenson as William S. Burroughs (a/k/a Old Bull Lee) and Amy Adams as his batty partner Joan Vollmer (a/k/a Jane) offer up a much needed spark. More of their idiosyncratic insanity — and less rubber hitting the road — would have provided far more relief than a half-dozen gas station rest stops.

What will all the comings and goings that make up the predominant portion of the story, it’s not 1951 but, rather, 1967 that comes to mind, with the Beatles crooning, “You say goodbye, and I say hello.” While that song lasts mere minutes, this road picture rolls on … and on … and on.

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Rating on a scale of 5 roadblocks: 2

Release date: December 21, 2012
Directed by: Walter Salles
Screenplay by: José Rivera
Adapted from the novel “On the Road” by: Jack Kerouac
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Elisabeth Moss, Alice Braga, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen
Rating: R
Running Time: 124 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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