Rambling – On the Road review

On the Road – Starring Sam RileyGarrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart. Directed by Walter Salles. Originally published June 13, 2012. By Simon Miraudo.

On the Road plays the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 11, 2012. It does not yet have an Australian release date. This review was first run during the Sydney Film Festival.

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 MortensenAmy AdamsTerrence HowardSteve 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 plays the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 11, 2012. It does not yet have an Australian release date.

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