Review: On The Road
ON THE ROAD was originally reviewed as part of our TIFF 2012 coverage.
REVIEW: Walter Salles’ big screen version of Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD hit TIFF in a significantly different form than it appeared at Cannes earlier this year. Having been shorn of roughly fifteen minutes of so, I suppose the intent was to create a more streamlined version of the film that might prove more palatable to a North American audience (the longer cut played in Europe this summer). Having only seen this shorter cut, I can’t say whether or not this new revised version of ON THE ROAD is an improvement, but given the long, rambling, episodic nature of the film I saw, they probably could have cut even more without anyone having been the wiser.
Granted, Jack Kerouac is not the easiest writer to adapt. Many have tried and failed to adapt ON THE ROAD to the screen, going all the way back to the eve of the novel’s publication in 1951. At one time, Kerouac himself was going to play Sal (his thinly veiled alter-ego) while Marlon Brando was going to play Moriarty. Some things are probably best left on the page, and after watching Salles’ film, I’m inclined to think that ON THE ROAD fits in that category.
To be sure, Salles has come close to making a good movie. Given the episodic construction of both the book and now the film, some parts work, some don’t. The early scenes depicting Sal’s life in New York, and his initial encounters with Moriarty are quite good, dripping with the fifties bohemian vibe so closely associated with the book. The same goes for a lengthy aside later in the film when the boys visit Old Bull Lee (a memorable cameo by Viggo Mortensen), a heroin-addicted poet and “source of all knowledge” that lives with his half-crazed wife Jane (Amy Adams- blink and you’ll miss her). Salles films these scenes in a way highly reminiscent of his own THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, which stands as a far superior take on a subject that’s similar in more ways than it is different. Well, at least they’re similar aside from the fact that Che Guevara actually changed on his quest, while Sal and Dean- in the film anyways, just get high a lot and have loads of sex.
The performances in ON THE ROAD are a mixed bag. Sam Riley, who gave an amazing performance as Ian Curtis in the Joy Division biopic CONTROL, makes for a passive Sal Paradise, although that’s probably in keeping with Kerouac’s intent, so it’s hard to fault him. He allows Hedlund, channeling Brando, to absolutely walk away with the film, and while I’ve never really liked Hedlund before (he was terribly bland in TRON: LEGACY), it can’t be denied that he nails the enigmatic Moriarty. The key to the character is that he’s supposed to enthrall all those he encounters. As such, it’s a difficult part, but Hedlund really pulls it off.
The other big names in the film are hit and miss. Steve Buscemi has a nice cameo as a motorist enamored with the bi-curious Moriarty, while Terrence Howard pops up in a tiny part as a jazz saxophonist who gets high and shelters the fellas early-on. The big draw for the teen audience the film seems devoted to attracting is Kristen Stewart as Dean’s teen bride Marylou. To me, this is just stunt casting, as it’s a fairly minor role, only calling for her to show up from time-to-time to get naked, do something “shocking” to the TWILIGHT audience and move on. I like Stewart a lot, but really, anyone could have played this part. Ditto Kirsten Dunst, as Dean’s other wife, who he ditches with a baby and a mountain of debt. It’s a tiny part.
Then again, ON THE ROAD isn’t a film I can really go on record as saying I disliked, as some of it worked, and I enjoyed watching Hedlund finally come into his own. Salles’ film also looks good- and the fact that my own Montreal stood in for New York is cleverly concealed for the most part (although Manhattanites may feel differently). As a curiosity piece, ON THE ROAD is probably still worth seeing, as Salles’ film certainly comes closer to being a successful adaptation than I would have thought.