Rambling – On the Road review (Sydney Film Festival)

On the Road – Starring Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart. Directed by Walter Salles. By Simon Miraudo.

On the Road played the Sydney Film Festival. It does not yet have an Australian release date.

I had endeavoured to finally read Jack Kerouac’s legendary, Beat Generation-defining novel On the Road before watching the long-awaited film adaptation. Any misgivings I had about its notoriously rambling prose was immediately dispelled after the first few pages; it was surprisingly fluid and still fresh more than 60 years after its publication. Though I was unable to complete the book before sitting down to Walter Salles‘ take on the tome, I felt I had a handle on Kerouac’s style, without spoiling for myself the late revelations of the plot. Having now endured all 137 minutes, it’s going to be a difficult task willing myself to return to the text. I’m sure the rest of it is excellent, but how can one bring themselves to go back on a trip that wound out so tediously on celluloid?

Salles’ languid road movie in no way recreates the electricity of Kerouac’s writing or the era it sought to define. Howl suffered a similar fate; despite concerning Allen Ginsberg’s culturally explosive poem, the picture was positively lethargic. Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund star as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty respectively (stand-ins for Kerouac and Beat muse Neal Cassady); poets who hitch, drive, drink, and screw their way around the United States. Sal is looking for inspiration to help him write a new kind of novel, while Dean is just going back and forth between his teenage ex-wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and embittered baby-mama Camille (Kirsten Dunst), having a hell of a time along the way.

Well, at least they’re having a good time. Hedlund throws himself head first into the role, but the poor boy’s enthusiasm can’t breathe life into a movie with the liveliness of a corpse. Stewart is remarkably adept at playing an overly sexualised young woman desperate for release (wonder where she honed that talent…). As for Riley, he’s saddled with the pic’s least interesting character and the unenviable task of having to regularly sit at a typewriter and make it look super exciting; he does however have the advantage of reciting that beautiful narration. Unfortunately, he just can’t quite convince as Paradise.

Eventually, On the Road becomes less like a freewheeling journey across America than it does a tour of the country’s best character actors. Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Terrence Howard, Steve Buscemi, and Elisabeth Moss are all excellent in their small roles, but none register for more than a couple minutes on screen. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with bringing in talented ringers to round out a cast, but the picture could have benefited greatly from featuring them more prominently. Or, perhaps it could have been 10 minutes long in total, and simply made up of their memorable moments. As it stands, the film is currently the length of infinity.

Some great works are not just a great story; they are intrinsically tied to their form. Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes is a brilliant reinterpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale, but it’s also an invigorating and visually marvellous movie. Samuel Beckett’s plays are meant to confront viewers, and are benefited by the immediate presence of an audience shifting awkwardly and audibly in their seats. On the Road is a book, and not only is it a book, it’s a book about the writing of a very different kind of book. As a feature, it’s a rambling, tedious, seemingly unending mess that can’t be salvaged by three decent but mostly underwhelming performances. Salles and his DOP Eric Gautier made it look nice, but they and screenwriter Jose Rivera never had a chance. Maybe some Benzedrine would make the whole experience seem worthwhile.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

On the Road played the Sydney Film Festival. It does not yet have an Australian release date.

6 Responses to “Rambling – On the Road review (Sydney Film Festival)”

  1. Rose-with-thorns Reply July 4, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    no way i’m watching a movie with kristen stewart in it, i’m not stupid lol

  2. Your “personal” insult to Kristen Stewart was the remark of a hack, not someone who is paid to give a professional assessment of a film and it’s performances. If I were your editor, you would be fired for such unprofessionalism. Shame on you.

    • Hi Barbara. I think you’re referring to this line: “Stewart is remarkably adept at playing an overly sexualised young woman desperate for release (wonder where she honed that talent…).”

      It was a reference to her character, Bella, in the Twilight films. That is, of course, that character’s entire arc. If you followed the link attached to those last six words you would have seen it directed to Breaking Dawn Part 1.

  3. Hello Simon,

    I just hit the link and yes, it did take me to Breaking Dawn (when I first read it, I didn’t see that it was a “link”. I saw what I thought was an inflammatory comment). So I ask that you please accept my apology. However, considering the climate surrounding this young woman’s life at the moment, surely you can see how such a comment could be misconstrued (if you noticed the comment that preceeded mine, that poster also referenced Stewart saying they wouldn’t see any film of hers). I just think there could have been another way to make your point about her performance.

    Thank you for answering me.

    • Apology absolutely accepted. Also worth noting: this review was written June 13th, during the Sydney Film Festival; several weeks before SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN hit Australian cinemas, and more than a month and a half before Ms. Stewart made public her dalliance with Rupert Sanders.

  4. In regards to the date, point well made sir. Again, my apologies.

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