Review: ‘On the Road’ is stop-and-go Special

Posted Jan 19, 2013 by Sarah Gopaul
‘On the Road’ is based on Jack Kerouac's novel about a young writer's adventurous friendship with a free-spirited man and his teenage wife as they travel across America.
Alliance Films
Though Jack Kerouac's best known book was published more than 50 years earlier, many had deemed it unfilmable because nothing noteworthy (in filmic standards) happens in the novel. Now, just because it's a film, it's not necessarily more accessible. Nor has the contents of the story been significantly changed. Therefore the movie adaptation of On the Road is not for everybody, but it does have an appeal.
Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) was a twenty-something author and poet who recorded everything in the notepads he carried with him. A desire for adventure and experience that would make him a better writer led him to Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). Dean was a free spirit and his carefree attitude was infectious. Over the years that followed their meeting, one or the other would travel hundreds of miles for a visit (and escape), stopping in on the rest of the country while they were at it. From New York to Denver to New Orleans to San Francisco to Mexico City, they discover themselves, each other and random strangers. They're encounters are often fueled by marijuana, Benzedrine, alcohol, sex or some combination of these vices. But eventually these haphazard encounters lose their lustre.
The characters in the book and film are pseudonyms for real-life influencers of the Beat Generation. Sam is Kerouac; Dean is Neal Cassady; their friend Carlo (Tom Sturridge) is Allen Ginsberg; and Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) is William S. Burroughs. Though if you're familiar with these personalities, the name does little to conceal their identities.
Sam's narrative is lifted from the novel and carries through the whole picture. Rather than be intrusive, it saturates Kerouac's voice and point of view into the entire film. His perspective is expressed in folksy prose that sounds like Americana poetry. A story centred on human interaction in ordinary circumstances doesn't provide exceptional material. In fact, it explains why time jumps forward months at a time – noteworthy things just don't happen every day to regular people. And that which does happen are not extraordinary by most standards: road trips, parties, concerts, infidelity and speeding tickets. But Kerouac's way with words makes it all seem more substantial. Also, director Walter Salles showed he can make a basic road trip movie epic when he directed The Motorcycle Diaries.
Dean wants his cake and to eat it too. Therefore, he attempts to achieve domestic bliss, first with his 16-year-old wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart) then Camille (Kirsten Dunst), who fathers two of his children. But it doesn't matter which woman he's with, he always finds himself drawn to the other woman, or the open road.
Riley inhabits the role of Sam/Kerouac, bringing both the words and actions to life. Having impressed audiences when he played the troubled lead singer in the Joy Division biopic, he only further confirms his talent for relating real-life personalities. Hedlund is gorgeous maverick, making every moment spent with Dean exciting. He also spends much of the movie half-naked (or more) and post-coital. Stewart's Mary Lou is somewhat of a play thing in the narrative, though she eventually gets smart enough to realize it and then do something about it.
The performances are a key element to enjoying this picture, but it remains slow and sometimes uneventful. If you're someone who would find this boring, this may not be the movie for you.
Director: Walter Salles
Starring: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart