Walter Salles’ “On the Road” was made with noble intentions, finely-crafted filmmaking and handsome casting, but, alas, it does not burn, burn, burn.
Salles, the Brazilian filmmaker of “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “Central Station,” would seem the perfect director to translate to the screen Jack Kerouac’s poetry of the road. But this “On the Road,” the first ever big-screen adaption of the Beat classic, doesn’t pulse with the electric, mad rush of Kerouac’s feverish phenomenon.
Salles approached the book with reverence and deep research, and perhaps that’s the problem – that its spirit got suffocated by respectfulness. The late ’40s period detail, shot by cinematographer Eric Gautier, is lush, and there is surely a very attractive montage that could be pulled from the film.
But if anything has made “On the Road” so beloved, it’s not its artful composition, but its yearning: the urgent passion of its characters to break free of themselves and postwar America and feel the freedom of the road. Salles captures the backpacks slung over hitchhiker shoulders, the rushing scenery out the car window, the sound of a dirt road underfoot. But his film, from the screenplay by “Motorcycle Diaries” writer Jose Rivera, ultimately feels conventional: too neatly packaged and too affectedly acted.
As our Dean Moriarty, Kerouac’s stand-in for Neal Cassady, Garrett Hedlund (“Tron”) gives his all in an ultimately failed attempt to find Moriarty’s wild magnetism within him. As the center of the book and the film – the Gatsby to our narrator Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) – he’s crucial to “On the Road” working. But he’s missing the mythical spark of Moriarty and the grit of someone who grew up on the streets of Denver, stealing cars.
It’s worth noting how impossible a task this is, to translate “On the Road” or make flesh Moriarty. Many have tried but it’s no coincidence that it’s taken this long for a film version. Certainly, we can lament that we don’t instead have an “On the Road” with James Dean or Marlon Brando, both of whom once considered it.
Imagine what Judd Apatow would do with “On the Road,” a bromance if there ever was one. There are so many brotherly hugs and arms flung across shoulders in the film that you’d swear you were watching European soccer.
Paradise and Moriarty make a series of crisscrossing trips across the country, bound in a brotherhood of travel. Paradise, Kerouac’s stand-in, is forever jotting down notes while Moriarty jumps from one woman to another. Carlo Marx, a.k.a. Allen Ginsburg (Tom Sturridge) is there, too, enamored and in love with Moriarty, while sharing the intellectual ambitions of Paradise.
Salles has focused particularly on the carnality of Kerouac’s tale, and it threatens to overtake the film. As Moriarty’s first wife, Marylou, Kristen Stewart’s slinky sensuality briefly dominates the movie, but her character is never developed beyond her sexy bohemia.
Better are the cameos of women left by the wayside. Kirsten Dunst, in a few scenes as Moriarty’s heartbroken second wife, Camille, makes a stronger impression than anyone. Elisabeth Moss, too, excels as a forgotten woman. She shouts: “They dumped me in Tucson! In Tucson!”
The women of “On the Road,” afterthoughts in the book, have more fire than the men.
Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Terrence Howard and Amy Adams make cameos, mostly suggesting the prestige of the project. In the end, “On the Road” remains paved over.