On The Road

Director    Walter Salles
Starring    Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Elisabeth Moss, Terrence Howard
Release    21 DEC (US) 12 OCT (UK)    Certificate 15
2 stars

Ed Williamson

11th October 2012

I don't know me too much 'bout no fancy book-learnin', but I do know you can get away with a lot more fannying about in a book than you can in a film. After watching On The Road I was left with the impression that Jack Kerouac's book, from which it was adapted and which I've never read, was probably a disjointed, stream-of-consciousness kind of affair, in which traditional notions of narrative structure matter less than the overall mood. Well, good for you, Jack (*tousles Kerouac's hair*). But this is a book that's long been thought unfilmable, and it's easy to see why.

That's not to say this isn't a noble effort on Walter Salles' part. There's an obvious passion for the material throughout, and he's cast it perfectly. But it seems that he's taken what must be a sprawling literary work and tried to make sense of it through the structure of a road movie. And the thing about a road movie is that it isn't defined as one because everyone's in a car the whole time; it's because the characters are driving towards some sort of ultimate goal.

If On The Road's Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) have an ultimate goal, it's hedonism. And fair play to them - I'll never begrudge a man getting happily boxed off his gourd till his eyes start bleeding - but at no stage in the story are they in any danger of being denied their hedonistic lifestyle, so what you're left with is the total absence of conflict and resolution. Give me a book along those lines and I'll probably truck through it happily enough as long as it's well written, but a film? Sorry, no sale.

I hate to think what that crying fanvid girl is going to make of this.

As far as the story goes, Sal is a young writer who meets charismatic Dean, a kindred spirit who enjoys every moment of his life and takes his friends along with him. Together, and accompanied at times by Dean's teenaged wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart), they drive around a bit, get drunk, take drugs, meet interesting people and have sex with them and each other. This is meant to be a journey of self-discovery, but it seems that they've already discovered pretty much everything about themselves, and it amounts to the fact that they really like doing all of the above.

This scattergun reality means they flit in and out of people's lives on their travels, and so we're teased periodically with appearances from some great actors. Steve Buscemi, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams and Elisabeth Moss all pop up, do a brilliant job for five minutes, then sod off again, leaving us a bit unsatisfied. Inbetween these vignettes you've got a lot of time to think about other things, and you might find yourself admiring the loving cinematography used to show the great American landscape in the driving scenes, or Hedlund's excellent, captivating performance as the magnetic Dean.

Sometimes Dean, the Beat Generation's Emile Heskey, needed an arm round the shoulder.

But in the end you'll be left wondering why you've been told all this. Sal, the main character and narrator, hasn't really learned anything or grown, other than now beginning to feverishly write the book itself, having briefly mentioned having writer's block in the first scene. Aside from an oddly shoehorned sequence suggesting that Sal has now grown up and become a 'straight' (which the film was never really railing against) and Dean is paying the price for his irresponsibility (which was never a message the film was preaching), nothing much has changed.

The Beat Generation, eh? You've got to hand it to them: they spent years getting stoned and sucking each other off, then convinced everyone it was poetic and they were to be lauded as geniuses. Wish I'd thought of it.

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