Much anticipated yet widely regarded as a folly to attempt to bring to the big screen, Jack Kerouac’s 1951 semi-autobiographical rite of passage through the heartland of America has simultaneously titillated and traumatised a host of screenwriters and directors ever since executive producer Francis Ford Coppola bought the film rights in the 1970s. Kerouac had previously asked Marlon Brando to take on a filmed version back in the 1950s; however, this was at a time when both the moral and cinematic climate of censorship would never have accepted the kind of reverent, and often painfully faithful, adaptation that we have before us today.
Director Walter Salles and screenwriter José Rivera previously tackled a similar tale of idealism on the move in The Motorcycle Diaries in 2004, and here they return to explore Kerouac’s recollections of post-war America using a muted handheld style, frequent jump cuts and a jazz score that erupts at regular intervals, supplying a surrogate substitute for the author’s restless prose. Unfortunately, this is supplemented by tediously repetitive and ubiquitous visual overdoses of drug taking sessions, booze-fuelled sexual experimentation and the incessant lighting of cigarettes. The film is evocatively shot, well assembled and piously attentive to the mercurial qualities of its source material, and Salles certainly does inject the film with plenty of youthful vigour, but it is so overly calculated in its bid for spontaneity that it smacks of fakery throughout, likely attesting to the unenviable task of trying to reproduce Kerouac’s literary lightning bolt for the screen.
Soon after the death of his father, Sal (played by Sam Riley from 2007’s Control) meets charismatic Dean Moriarty (Hedlund), an insatiable, self-destructive, serial womaniser and drug-devouring playboy who seems to exert a hypnotic gravitational pull on just about everyone that crosses his path. Hitchhiking his way across the country, Sal finds that Dean is bedding both the trashy Marylou (Stewart) and the demure Camille (Dunst). Dean continues to see-saw between the two women throughout the film, while Sal wanders the countryside looking for inspiration by observing and patronisingly interacting with the forgotten and faceless underclasses of America.
“The only people that interest me,” Sal declares in voiceover midway through the film, “are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing − but burn, burn, burn, like Roman candles across the night.” However, the illuminating light, scintillating heat and hunger for life that should be provided by this young cast as they burn down the conventions of their surroundings, come across as disappointingly contrived, tepid and safe. Riley in particular never manages to convey − with visual expression or through his narration − what is going on in his mind, and his Kerouac is simply too bland and passive to identify with. The cameos provided by Steve Buscemi and a growling Viggo Mortensen as the alter ego of William Burroughs do hit their marks slightly more effectively, albeit only for fleeting moments, as the filmmakers attempt to nourish and force-feed this rather emaciated form.
The novel portrayed an intoxicatingly fierce personal quest for meaning and belonging in a cold war America full of conflict and contradiction, where conformity was rife and outsiders were met with suspicion. However, this adaptation fails to capture this search for a codified new way forward and instead relies on oversimplified sensation, surface angst and fragmented movement from one isolated and unexplored bohemian bubble to another, each of which seems to deflate with the merest of bombastic whines and groans.
On the Road (11)
Dir: Walter Salles; US drama, 2012, 137 mins; Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen
Premieres October 4