Something seems amiss in this version of On the Road; surely, the beats could not have been so conventionally dull, their problems so surface-level, their behavior so easy to unravel. Or maybe the beats were just stupendously self-centered but no one realized it at the time because being so stupendously self-centered was new and seemed arresting and profound to the people around them.
It’s hard to know, because each character in On the Road—the screen version, at least, directed by Walter Salles—is either a cipher on purpose or underdeveloped accidentally. Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), our gravel-voiced narrator, has no definable personality. He seems to while away the time in his mother’s Ozone Park, Queens, apartment, smoking, sort of writing and waiting for something to happen.
And something does happen. His friend Carlo Marx (played by Tom Sturridge and based on Allen Ginsberg) introduces him to Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund, who’s better than this part deserves; it’s sad that his last film appearance was Tron: Legacy and his next was this) and Dean’s wife, Marylou (Kristen Stewart).
To say that Dean is fucked up is an understatement. He has abandonment issues—absent father—and he does a lot of abandoning himself. It’s all very uninteresting.
Perhaps part of the problem is looking at On the Road through a 2013 lens. The novel is set in the late 1940s, as is the movie, and it’s easy to see how the novel, when it was published in 1957, must have resonated with so many people.
These days, with every person on the planet living their lives publicly in some kind of manner, the problems of three little people—to steal from and paraphrase a classic—don’t amount to a hill of beans. Don’t identity with the On the Road crew? Go and identify with someone else. Perhaps in 1957 On the Road’s stream-of-conscious immediacy and the nature of its characters’ pain made it revelatory. Now, you want to tell them to call a shrink and a psychopharmacologist.
That’s not to suggest the movie doesn’t have fine moments. The story, such as it is—a series of road trips from New York to San Francisco and Denver and a bad stint in Mexico—does offer up a few gems. When the gang stops to see Old Bull Lee, a gun-toting, low-speaking, heroin-shooting malcontent sage, Viggo Mortensen does what Viggo Mortensen does best: play gun-toting, low-speaking malcontents with fervor. Lee—based on William S Burroughs, and it’s a good approximation of him here—is scary, fascinating and nuts. His scenes have some life.
Another nice surprise is Stewart as Marylou. Stewart ditches the sourpuss look she sports in nearly every movie since What Just Happened? and seems loose and ready for anything, precisely the kind of spirit Marylou needs.
On the Road also captures well the emptiness of such an existence, and Dean’s final moment with Sal has a palpable sense of sadness to it in the same way your alcoholic brother’s problems make you sad.
But the movie chugs along with such reserve and predictability (do we really have any doubt how things will turn out for each of these people?) that it doesn’t add up to much, unless one of its goals is to make attendees check their watches. That can’t be one of director Salles’ aims.
There’s good production design, and some of the party scenes have some spunk—Stewart cuts a pretty good rug—but the lighting is flat and it all adds up to: Is this it? And really, Dean, how could you have ditched Sal in Mexico like that? That’s what Dean does, though, and you’re either on board—like Sal—or you’re not.
ON THE ROAD
Directed by Walter Salles
With Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart