On The Road

On the RoadThe mark of a good adaptation, regardless of what direction it takes the material, is whether or not it makes you want to read the book. Walter Salles’ depiction of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road categorically does not. This coming of age story about the travels of writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and his hyper-enigmatic friend Dean Moriarty is about the lure of a bold, loveable character like Dean, and his addictive energy for life which infects Sal and the people they meet. On The Road is a constantly moving argument against conformity that lauds exploration, adventure, love and friendship in its many forms. These are the formative years that lead to the Beat Generation and their impact. But Salles’ take on all this is patronisingly formulaic and lazily strung together in a way that makes you feel the director is working from a list of tick-boxes. He does however, make a decent stab at the idea of loss. Although Sal’s references to his own dead father feel far too functional, you do feel it when Dean’s search for his own father fails repeatedly and when Dean’s selfishness finally extends to Sal. Salles also has Garret Hedlund depict Dean’s fallible nature, his cavalier attitude to his own life and his selfishness about everyone else with a weird but absorbing mix of bluntness and delicacy. Still, it doesn’t make up for Salles’ failure to show us the complexity of these characters particularly Kristen Stewart’s depiction of Dean’s teenage wife, MaryLou. Instead, we only see a shallow version of the trio who are ripe for excavation but for the most part just dusted. Sal doesn’t come off as a deep thinker, but someone swept up in romanticism and the prospect of adventure fulfilling his desperate need for inspiration. MaryLous is bland as can be and Dean is two-dimensional at best. It gets worse as the characters they meet including Kirsten Dunst as Cammile, Dean’s second wife, Viggo Mortensen’s drug-addicted novelist character based on William Burroughs and Burrough’s wife (Amy Adams!), are criminally circumstantial.  Though this is all to do with the script not the acting. Sam Riley as Sal is actually brilliant and it’s worth noting that Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx, an excitable, earnest poet, integral to Sal’s understanding of the world, breaks this mould. This story is a mixture of exhilaration and darkness as Dean, Sal, MaryLou and their friends discover amazing music, laugh, have lots sex, and dance every chance they can. But their road trips are also marred by misogyny, drugs and a lack of hope. What Salles misses is a proper look at the political and social contexts of their existence. The joy of being is too quickly and easily of shadowed by the bitterness of being let down, after which there’s little reason to keep paying attention. This has the makings of a love letter to a landscape and an ode to a generation, but it struggles between making a statement about the vast swathes of America Sal covers on his journeys and the intimate, intense moments that make up so much of his observations. On The Road is in cimeas from 12th October 2012

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