Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles shot to fame more than a decade ago with his tender film ‘Central Station’, which garnered a bagful of awards across the world including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Then in 2004 came ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’, another multiple award winning story of Che Guevara’s youth. Both films hooked us into the emotional core of their principal characters and the latter film even redefined the road-trip movie genre with its carefree, visually stunning style.
Teaming up once again with his screenwriter José Rivera and cinematographer Eric Gautier from ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’, Salles presents ‘On the Road’ of how Beat Generation poet and novelist Jack Kerouac met a free-spirited cad named Neal Cassady and the adventurous road trips they took in the late 1940s. Sam Riley plays Sal Paradise (stand-in for Kerouac) and Garrett Hedlund is the flashy Dean Moriarty (stand-in for Cassady).
Maybe it was the scope of this road trip that spanned several U.S. states and a period of three years or maybe it was the pressure to stay faithful to one of the most beloved and respected novels of that time. But ‘On the Road’ manages to render all characters flat and uninteresting and the road trip will make you want to get off and hitch a ride with Thelma and Louise instead.
The film is obsessed with telegraphing the message, “Look, this is what it was like during that time.” So we get flashes of street protests, a brief and timid insight into how women were expected to conform and tend the home, how the jazz scene was reaching its zenith especially in underground clubs in New York, and how the youth of that era tried to deal with post-World War II xenophobia with an overdose of sex and drugs. But none of it makes us connect or identify with any of the characters’ inner conflict, which is ironic because the novel is first and foremost a document of how the young generation felt about societal norms, the rising threat of the Cold War, and McCarthyism.
Sure, for titillation, there is plenty of nudity and sex: one-on-one, groups, boy on girl on boy, and even sex for pay. Garrett Hedlund as the sexy and charming Dean gets to participate in most of it. The movie’s spotlight is on him and he tries his best, and mostly succeeds, in giving an unsympathetic character a touch of humanity. Kristen Stewart, with her opaque, dead eyes, does what she does in every movie: pout. Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss, and Kirsten Dunst give fierce performances in much-too-brief roles and poor Viggo Mortensen is grievously miscast as William S. Burroughs. As for the author of this novel himself, read the book if you want to understand why Kerouac would have been in the least fascinated by someone like Cassady/Moriarty. Watching ‘On the Road’ you’d have no clue to this important question.