On the Road is one of those books people live their life by. It changes perception. People read and reread it, discuss its particulars, and keep a copy in their luggage when they decide to act on its inspiration and go on a trip just like the characters Dean Moriarty, Sal Paradise and Marylou. Most of the time filming a work of literary genius like that is near impossible, especially one that lacks a traditional narrative structure. The film version of On the Road just about gets it right.

Director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera have done as good a job of translating Kerouac’s tone and pace as possible with On the Road. Starring Garrett Hedlund (in the role of his career), Kristen Stewart, Sam Riley and featuring supporting performances by Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Elizabeth Moss, Kirsten Dunst and others, the film echoes the free and easy tone defined by the book, filled with travel, drugs, sex, and philosophy. The question is: does that make for an entertaining film? The answer is complicated.

On the Road opens on December 21, but recently played as part of the AFI Fest Presented by Audi. Read more below.

In On the Road, a writer named Sal (Riley) is looking for inspiration and finds it in a man he can’t quite define: Dean Moriarty (Hedlund). Dean is cool, smooth, spontaneous and totally without boundaries. That lifestyle inspires and informs the lives of several people Dean meets, Sal being paramount among them. While traveling from coast to coast, however, having wild random sex, staying up late doing all kinds of drugs, each character begins to wonder if it’s worth it. Some grow up, others don’t and the value of youth and when to let go begins to weigh on each of them. Responsibility becomes a factor for them all, save for Dean, who continues to fly by the seat of his pants.

In making a movie that moves at it own pace, Salles is forced to focus less on some characters and more on others, all of which is likely controlled by a desire to stay true to Kerouac’s book. But as a movie, some of the character’s performances are stronger than others (for example, Hedlund blows away every single one of his co-stars) and that makes moving away from them frustrating.

Also, the simple fact this is a movie makes it impossible for the viewer to reflect on Kerouac’s themes or prose. In a book, you have time to contemplate. In a movie, where things have to keep moving, there’s no time to breathe. On the Road could have used more pause, something movies don’t do particularly well.

Adapting On the Road was a tall task and Salles does his best. But it never becomes a transcendent experience that fans of the novel might hope for.

/Film rating 6.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Germain graduated NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Cinema Studies program in 2002 and won back to back First Place awards for film criticism from the New York State Associated Press in 2006 and 2007.

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