On the Road (review)

On the Road Sam Riley Garrett Hedlund red light

I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast, like Walter Salles’ other similar work

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

If you didn’t know that Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] was a seminal influence on postwar America, that it helped define a generation and even determined the course of significant aspects of modern pop culture, you would never, ever guess it from this lifeless, soulless, pointless adaptation.

Director Walter Salles (Dark Water) and screenwriter Jose Rivera (Letters to Juliet) bizarrely strip all cultural and historical context from a tale that desperately needs it today, 65 years after it is set — without that, their film looks like nothing so much as a random assemblage of manboy exploits as self-indulgent layabouts smoke pot, listen to jazz, and write poetry. Just what the hell is wannabe writer (and stand-in for the author) Sal Paradise (Sam Riley: Brighton Rock) rebeling against? In what way is the world failing to meet his expectations? What is it about his new friend Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund: Tron: Legacy, Country Strong) that makes him, in Sal’s eyes, “holy”? We haven’t got a clue.

Sal and Dean, as they are presented here, are no different — no different — than Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, the Hangover guys, or Harold and Kumar, except perhaps for their gorgeous period setting. (The film looks amazing. The same cannot be said for the content.) If we’re meant to take it that Kerouac set the stage for stoner bromances, no thank you. Sal and Dean talk about how they might get around to talking about stuff without ever actually getting around to saying anything of substance, and in fact, perhaps the only moment consisting of something close to an authentic philosophical take on the world, as crass as it may be, comes from Amy Adams’ (Leap Year) kooky rural Louisiana housewife, who explains to Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) and Kristen Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman), all the ill-treated fuck toys of the men here, that there’s a certain necessity in giving men blow jobs.

Of course, that moment is the only conversation among women at all in the film, as if in Sal’s world, women exist only in relation to men, and only congregate among themselves to discuss men. I’d love to be able to think that Salles is making some sort of postmodern criticism of Kerouac, that the women he’s all but ignoring are living in the real world that the men perhaps think they’re above, but there’s no evidence for that. I can’t even see that there’s a joke in the fact that the women are, quite literally, scrubbing floors while they have this conversation. If the moment isn’t an accident, it’s an opportunity that is thrown away as quickly as it is broached.

As, indeed, the rest of the film seems to be. The narrative is nothing but Sal chasing Dean around the country — between Denver and San Francisco and New York and New Orleans — (and once or twice Dean chasing Sal) doing odds jobs and being miserable. Sometimes Sal is driven to scribble things on paper, once so inspired that he runs out of paper and has to resort to using newspaper, and even runs pencils down to stubs, but what he’s writing is left a mystery. (The suggestion is that he’s writing the very story we see onscreen, but as already noted, we get no indication as to why this story is worth telling.) It’s as if the entire film is made up of all the bits in between the interesting bits (which have been cut out). It’s a shameful waste of a fantastic cast, which also features Kirsten Dunst (Bachelorette), Viggo Mortensen (The Road), Steve Buscemi (Grown Ups), and Alice Braga (Predators).

Why did this story hit like a ton of cultural bricks in the 1950s? Why is it still important today? This On the Road has no insight and no hindsight.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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