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On the Road

2012 | 124 min | R | 2.39:1

On the Road


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Theatrical release date

 21 December, 2012
 12 October, 2012

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On the Road Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, December 19, 2012

It’s been a long journey to bring Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel, “On the Road,” to the screen, which probably should’ve served as a warning to anyone daring to make the commitment. After 50 years of false starts and adaptation blues, the work has finally been dramatized, though, after watching the movie, it’s difficult to understand why anyone would be excited to turn this decidedly literary creation into a cinematic experience. Labored and miscast, “On the Road” mistakes droning meditation for soulful significance, dashing around Kerouac’s experiences without establishing connective tissue, making the feature less about the characters and more about the highlights, trying to pack in as much of the source material as possible, regardless if it flows or not.

In the 1940s, young Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is an aspiring writer who befriends womanizer Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and poet Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), with the three men bonding over their shared love of the written word and the possibilities of life, fully extracted through the art of travel. Over the years, the friends separate and reunite, with Sal taking time away from his boring New York City existence to visit America, hitching rides with various strangers while making money as a laborer, all the while taking furious notes about his experiences. While Sal works out his voice, Dean goes on to deal with numerous women, impregnating wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst) while carrying on with underage lover Marylou (Kristen Stewart), who also has a thing for Sal. As the years pass, Sal grows intoxicated with Dean’s attention, while his travels take him to the four corners of the country, only to realize his friend may not possess the type of character that should be idolized as their drug-and-sex-fueled highs reveal a toxic reality when the fog clears.

While Francis Ford Coppola spent the last three decades trying to assemble “On the Road” for the screen, he ultimately takes a producing credit on the picture, with screenwriting duties claimed by Jose Rivera and directorial responsibilities handed to Walter Salles, who collaborated on “The Motorcycle Diaries” in 2004 -- a film concerning wanderlust many consider to be a distant cousin of Kerouac’s work. It’s not an easy job to adapt the author’s iconic portrait of the Beat Generation, leaving me to wonder why anyone would even bother. After all, it’s a story concerning the communication of life experiences, digging into a human soul to process the bipolar nature of humanity and close friendships, with Dean’s parasitical nature best left to pages of description, not moments of blank stares. The feature runs on flat tires right off the bat, unable to secure the attraction shared between the men, which is supposed to motivate the rest of the story.

Instead of a fiercely internalized tale of observation and exposure to the elements, Salles gets lost in the atmosphere. It’s a lovely picture, shot by Eric Gautier, with a grand sense of shifting countryside and the movement of interstate life, but the film doesn’t carry profound personalities. Salles wanders from moment to moment, unwilling to develop the characters past their repetitive behaviors, while supporting parts are reduced to brief shots of screen time that play up celebrity cameos instead of heated interpersonal connection. Dunst, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Terrence Howard, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, and Steve Buscemi make appearances as the faces Dean and Sal meet as they plunge into the great unknown. With these narrative developments come complications in areas of drug intake, homosexual interests, marital distress, and challenges of personal responsibility. However, it’s difficult to connect the urgency to the actor, rendering most of the feature’s side interests uninteresting, perhaps only of value to die-hard Kerouac readers.

“On the Road” is episodic, but should build to a punishing revelation between Sal and Dean as their youth is scrubbed away, revealing the true price of personal choices. The moment is there but lacks significance, unable to gain traction in a feature that’s too wrapped up in the freewheeling lifestyle of easy sex and assorted pleasures to successfully land its ultimate impact. “On the Road” is a film of words and impulses, about a postwar generation stepping out to feel the weight of the world during a delicate time of freedom and delayed responsibility. It’s a shame Salles is too distracted by the particulars of sin to truly bring Kerouac to life.

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Sam Riley, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Garrett Hedlund, Terrence Howard
Director: Walter Salles

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