AT the time of its publication in 1957, On the Road was considered so far ahead of its time you almost needed a telescope to read it. As this Walter Salles' adaptation shows, time doesn't always flatter the bold.
To revisit Kerouac's Beat novel on screen more than half a century on feels like dropping into Jurassic Park. Yes, it's a fantastic environment, those magnificent landscapes, that big sky. Yes, there are colourful creatures to gaze upon, Sam Riley, Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen among them; but my does this place feel prehistoric.
At heart, Salles' On the Road is a well-realised but sluggish mood piece, and like the jazz it features so prominently, it will be an acquired taste. Those who are not admirers of the Kerouac vibe should prepare themselves for many a longeur between some fine acting solos.
Having played Ian Curtis in Control and Pinkie in Brighton Rock, Leeds' own Sam Riley continues his drive to nab every cult part going by taking on the role of Sal Paradise (aka Kerouac himself). When we first meet Sal it is 1947 in New York City.
Salles, director of The Motorcycle Diaries, has a fine eye for the grubby, hard-scrabble, post-war times. While not quite as drab as British cities at the time, New York is shown to be a cold, sharp cornered space, the kind of town a young man would happily leave in search of adventure.
Like a borrower of library books, Sal is picking up the friends who would have a huge influence on his outlook and writing. There's Carlo Marx (played by Tom Sturridge, standing in for Allen Ginsberg), and Dean Moriarty (played by Garrett Hedlund, taking on the role of Neal Cassady). Moriarty is the lovable villain of the piece, the true wild one, the one Sal and his friends want to be if only they had the nerve. We know Moriarty is the king of bohemian cool because he opens the door to his friends, naked, having just finished the act of lovemaking. Salles likes this scene so much he uses it twice. Once the travelling starts, other characters enter and leave the fray, such as Kristen Stewart's Marylou, Kirsten Dunst's Camille, and Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss. It's a measure of the pull which Kerouac's novel still has that the adaptation could have attracted actors of such calibre. To their credit, Salles and his screenwriter Jose Rivera (Oscar-nominated for The Motorcycle Diaries), and the actors themselves, take what are small female roles and ensure they are not only perfectly formed but memorable too. The women in On the Road were there to be good time girls for the boys (Marylou), or drudges and scolds, reminders of what lay ahead for a man if he settled down (Dunst's young mother and Moss's abandoned and furious bride). Of the three, it is Stewart who turns in the most haunting performance.
The road is a man's world, where boys like Moriarty go to have a good time and young men such as Sal go to drink it all in like so much cordial in Alice in Wonderland. Discoveries are made – drugs among them – hearts are broken, cheese and bread and petrol are stolen, and all the while the travelling goes on. From Louisiana to California to New York again, Sal keeps on pickup trucking or hitching a lift in Moriarty's heap of junk.
Salles follows the structure of the book, breaking the travels into parts, a stop-start approach which works better in a novel than it does on the screen. One hour in, Sal's travels seem to have been going on forever. Even the introduction of new characters and scenery – including Mortensen as Burroughs – fail to break up the pattern enough to lighten the load of the story, such as it is. Watching the development of a writer on screen isn't quite up there with watching paint dry, but it comes close. Salles' picture comes alive again briefly as the characters grow older. Riley handles the transition from gauche youth to semi-rounded adult with his usual flare; Hedlund is more impressive, sucking the marrow from his wayward character yet showing him to have a vulnerable side.
The late rally can't make up for the delays caused while Salles does some more tuning into the mood of the times. Frankly, once you've heard one jazz solo and seen the inside of one vintage car, you've heard and seen them all. The characters are given too much opportunity to muse aloud about themselves and the artist's lot. Welcome to the town of Introspection, Drearsville, USA.
Two wheels proved lucky for Salles in Motorcycle Diaries, four wheels here are less so. It's not for want of fine performances or spot-on mood setting, but because the piece has nothing fresh to say. The lights, and the times, have changed.
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