On the Road

**½

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (1 People gave this 3.00 out of 5)
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And what a flat road it is.

On The Road

The H-Bomb: Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road is a seminal literary work of the Beat generation, a post-WW II movement defined by youthful rebellion, artistic expression, sexual liberation, and drug use… lots and lots of drug use. A sort-of prelude to the hippie era, if you will, with jazz in the place of rock n’ roll. The semi-autobiographical book chronicles the adventures of Kerouac surrogate Sal Paradise (played in the film by Sam Riley) on his various journeys across and around the U.S., from New York, to Denver, to San Francisco, to New Orleans, down into Mexico, and wherever else the open road takes him. He travels on the fast and cheap by car, bus, and if all else fails, hitchhiking.

Sal’s companion for many of these journeys is one Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a slick, easy going dude with an affinity for weed, liquor, and sex (with girls and guys). He’s a life of the party type who can charm the pants off of almost everyone he meets (an ability he exploits to no end), and who possesses a rather cavalier attitude towards life. This is made perfectly clear when we find out that Dean has left his wife, Camille (Kirsten Dunst) and their baby in San Francisco so he can go gallivanting around the U.S.A. with his girlfriend, Marylou (Kristen Stewart).

Sal and Dean come across a vast assortment of individuals throughout their travels, including a couple of close encounters with humorless traffic cops, as well as an extended visit with their heroin addicted, gun-toting mentor, William S. Burroughs stand-in Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen). The two form a special kind of bond on the road, even though Sal is fully aware that Dean is, for the most part, bad news. But hey, if nothing else, Dean will provide a vast amount of material for that book Sal is thinking of writing, provided he ever makes it back to New York in one piece.

The film adaptation of On the Road is perhaps second only to John Carter (of Mars) in terms of how long it has loitered in development hell. Francis Ford Coppola has been attached to the project for at least a couple of decades, and remained on board as executive producer. The directing reigns were finally handed to Walter Salles, who after making the exceptional Motorcycle Diaries, seemed like the ideal man for the job. While I’m no aficionado on Beat literature, I did read the novel On the Road some years back, and while it’s been too long for me to do a step by step comparison, from what I do remember, the film does stick pretty close to the source material. Unfortunately, while Salles’ film is mostly faithful to the novel, something most definitely was lost in the translation.

Or, perhaps not. Because, while I quite liked the book, when I heard there was a film in the works, I remember having my doubts as to whether it would make a good film. Now that I’ve seen that film, I feel I can say that my doubts were indeed well-founded. There was a romanticism, a sense of discovery and adventure in Kerouac’s book, as well as a clear understanding of who Sal was and where he was coming from. None of that carries over into the film. Here, the characters basically bounce around from place to place, drinking, smoking, fucking, dancing to jazz music, and drunkenly sharing their poetic musings with each other. Intersperse that with the odd scene of them driving down some picturesque back road, and you have the movie. It gets repetitive as hell, with no discernible point to any of it.

Another aspect that hurts the film is the behavior of our two protagonists. While some hipsters may find how they act to be admirably free spirited and romantic, I do not. I find their behavior, particularly Dean’s, to be boorish, selfish, and downright hedonistic. While they claim that they’re rejecting the conventional values and materialism of old in pursuit of finding some “deeper meaning,” I say they’re full of it, that they only use that philosophy as an excuse to avoid any kind of societal responsibility, so they can just go off and do whatever the hell they want whenever they want.

Also, if this Dean is so damn charming and likable in the eyes of all the other people in the film, why is it the actor who plays him, Hedlund, is so completely devoid of any kind of charisma whatsoever? This may be more the fault of Jose Rivera’s screenplay, but the Dean I’m seeing is a shallow, manipulative asshole who is absolutely dull, to boot. As for Riley, who plays our narrator/tour guide to this boozy, hazy world, I found him rather bland and boring to watch, as well. Considering these are the two mainstays for this episodic, humdrum journey, some effort could have been made to make them a bit more engaging.

Oddly enough, it’s Bella Swan herself, Stewart, who breathes life into this picture with a sincere and spirited performance. The downside to that is, her doting girlfriend character is woefully underwritten, as we never understand why she’s so head-over-heels for that douche bag, Dean. Oh, and you may have heard, this is the film where Stewart frequently appears topless… take it from me, folks, you’re not missing a thing. Dunst, as Dean’s scorned wife, is also quite good, but like Stewart, she’s underused. Amy Adams’ appearance (as Bull Lee’s ill-fated wife) is so fleeting that she barely registers, and Mortensen, doing a pitch perfect Burroughs impersonation, is solid as Old Bull Lee, but like all the other good ones, the movie needed more of him.

While I’m on the subject of things that actually worked in the film, I should note that the cinematography by Eric Gautier is quite splendid, and worth seeing in high definition, and that the period detail, from what I could tell, was spot on. So, kudos to the production designer and the camera guy, they did their jobs well. Everyone else kind of fell short. It’s not that I think On the Road is a bad film, it just leaves a lot to be desired… like a compelling dramatic arc, or even a point. As far as self-discovery road movies go, I’d say that Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, as well as Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, are both far superior films, and more worthy of your time. When On the Road finally got to the overdue end credits, I was left with one thought… not every book is meant to be a film. Some stories only work on the page.


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