Arriving after more than fifty years, On The Road finally makes it to the screen, but cruises when it should race. A passion project of producer Francis Ford Coppola since 1980, Kerouac’s beat touchstone is alluringly cinematic source material on the surface, offering as it does a colourful cross-section of 1950s America, from Mexico to San Francisco to New York; as well as a carousel of drugs, jazz and wild sex. But one author’s thrilling ode to the search for experience proves to be another’s wearingly self-conscious period piece, as director Walter Salles delivers an overlong, overly polite rendition of one of literature’s most famous works of rebellion.
Chronicling the artistic growth of aspiring writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), On The Road fuses its source’s plot with Kerouac’s struggle to write his iconic novel. Interspersing Paradise/Kerouac’s adventures with his frantic scribbling, and bookended by his sitting down to write On The Road on the now famous scroll, it’s an approach that both recreates and crystallises the book, retelling the story of Kerouac’s opus more as historical event than revelatory experience.
The result is an exercise of staying on the straight and narrow, with the occasional moment hinting at the better film lingering within the material. Riley, enigmatic and closed, is closer to his Ian Curtis in Control than a man more keenly absorbing experience, and Garrett Hedlund – last seen sucking the life out of Tron: Legacy – whilst better, can’t quite capture the impulsiveness and charisma required of Neal Cassady cipher Dean Moriarty. Far better are Kristen Stewart, soulful and convincing as Moriarty squeeze Marylou; and Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee, a take on William Burroughs that suggests an understanding of the material lacking in his co-stars.
Unhinged performances from supporting players – also including an all too brief cameo from Steve Buscemi – only serve to underline the wan respectability otherwise on show here. Salles, shorn of the political dimension that gave coherence to The Motorcycle Diaries (a virtual audition to direct this film) can only offer a polaroid-tinted, chicly realised America. Failing to capture the thrill of landscape, music and moment-to-moment living that was the lifeblood of Kerouac’s novel, it is a film that works better as solid drama than beat cinema, more likely to appeal to the uninitiated than fans.
None of which makes On The Road unpalatable on its own terms, or without some nicely realised moments. But those familiar with its inspiration will likely find Salles’ film more concerned with period detail then genuine faithfulness, and devoid of the unhinged spirit of its author. In the end, it retains its status as a journey to who-knows-where, yet probably not in the way its original author intended.