Well made but otherwise empty, On the Road manages to capture late-’40s America in a feature centered on cross-country travel, smoking cigarettes, sex, drugs, drinking and stealing gas and food, but as a narrative it has little to nothing to say. The tedious result of this adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s famed novel is, however, unfortunate considering Eric Gautier’s rich, smoke-filled cinematography, Walter Salles’s direction and stand-out performances from most of the cast. All that said, I was able to find my own interpretation of the material that managed to slightly elevate my overall opinion, but that’s hardly a saving grace.
Beginning in 1947, we’re introduced to Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), a writer who can’t find anything to say. The words won’t come, but inspiration comes knocking as he and his writer friend Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) settle in for a night with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and his new 16-year-old wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart).
First impressions are everything as free-spirited Dean answers the door naked (something he’ll do at least two more times over the film’s two hour plus duration) with Marylou naked on the bed behind him. The night turns into weeks, months and years of on-again/off-again partying, travel and various forms of public debauchery.
From New York to Lousiana to California to Nebraska, we follow the separate and together travels of Dean and Sal all across the country as they are joined by friends, family and new acquaintances at every turn. Problem is, none of this seems to do anything more than present a new vignettes to pile into a story that isn’t going anywhere.
Take for example Sal’s solo trip to California where he meets Terry (Alice Braga), a young single mother whom he has a brief affair with while working the cotton fields. Eventually he heads back to New York, leaving her behind and her part of the story complete. Why was this necessary? Beyond that, in their travels, why is it necessary to see them continually stealing food from roadside gas stations and quoting the same Harry Truman line? “We must cut down on the cost of living.” I got it the first time.
These characters are all clearly lost, looking for something and not finding it and I struggle to say they ever will. That is, until I began trying to find some interpretation of what was on screen and come away with something to say.
On the Road is narrated by Paradise’s character, trying to put his story to paper, telling the story we’re watching on screen. My interpretation is to consider Sal, Dean and Carlo as three separate personalities of the same person. Sal being the more responsible, loving and caring type, Dean being the wild man and Carlo as the jealous onlooker striving for both attention and greatness. Each of us has some aspect of these personalities in us even if we don’t act on them and from what I could gather the story being told here is the narrator’s — Sal in this case — exploring these separate personalities within him and telling the resulting story.
Clues such as a photograph torn in two and later pieced back together and a Mexican dance sequence, which almost edits Dean and Sal together as if they are having intercourse, led me to believe they have either become, or actually are, the same person.
The ending presents an image of Sal, grown out of his wild and jealous ways, leaving those parts of his life behind him for a “normal” life, something Marylou hinted at earlier in the film. He found an outlet for his demons in his writing and that allowed him to find peace and normalcy in life.
As someone that has never read Kerouac’s novel, and fully realizing my interpretation of the material is not the fact of the matter, reading into what was on screen in this way does give me a greater appreciation for what I saw as opposed to interpreting it as a straightforward narrative. Because as a straightforward narrative it just doesn’t work.
In terms of the performances, there really isn’t a bad one to be found. Sam Riley is the observer in most of this film, sitting back smiling, taking it all in and writing down his adventures in his many notepads until he occasionally gives in to temptation and the moment. Garrett Hedlund is the best I’ve seen him and Kristen Stewart turns in a brave performance in what comes across as her bold journey beyond the dull and lifeless character she portrays in the Twilight movies.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Stewart smile this much or as happy as Marylou was, naked giving both Dean and Sal a hand job in the front seat of Dean’s ’49 Hudson as it speeds down the roadâ€¦ Again, another example of how I interpret both men as one and it won’t be Sal’s last sexual encounter with Marylou as the evidence continues to pile up.
Along the way we’re joined by Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss, Terrence Howard and Steve Buscemi, all adding various levels of love, drugs, jazz and sex to the mix, but none really adding much to the story.
Overall, this just isn’t a very good movie. It’s repetitive and tedious, one scene after another barely distinguishing itself from the last. As beautiful as it all looks and as well-acted as it is, the only way I was able to find much interest in it was to create my own interpretation of what it was trying to say and even then I don’t really need to explore that any further either.