The time seems ripe for a film adaptation of the classic countercultural novel “On the Road.” The line between hipster and square is so blurred as to make no difference. The border between art and commerce, once considered sacred by successive generations of beatniks, hippies and punk rockers, has been inalterably reordered. The story of a few literary vagabonds who aggressively spurned and mocked the prevailing norms of their day might prove inspirational to a generation of young people who are used to logging into corporately owned social networks to express themselves.
Sadly, Brazilian director Walter Salles’ version of “On the Road” fails to capture the elation and awareness run amok that animate the novel. Though faithful to the characters and the narrative, the film cheats the audience on the context that drives the characters to embrace what were in the late 1940s not yet called alternative lifestyles. The result is a slapdash mix of orgiastic set pieces that don’t offer a sense of the passion that moved the characters.
As a period piece, the clothes, hair and set dressing rivals “Mad Men” for its sense of stylistic verisimilitude. The tenement apartments, flophouses, jazz clubs and gas stations are rendered with loving attention. But the breathless, immediate language of the novel doesn’t translate as well as the setting. The result is a film that, for all its sex, drugs and be-bop, is oddly labored.
“On the Road” gets a lot of its power from the charisma and vitality of Dean Moriarty (a fictional stand-in for Neal Cassady). Dean is primal, carnal, larcenous, and has a kind of vampiric effect on those around him. He loses a lot of his charm when seen through the lens of a camera. Garrett Hedlund conveys Neal’s seamy side, but he doesn’t emit that rapturous force of attraction that drew so many to him. Sam Riley plays narrator and protagonist Sal Paradise (the Kerouac stand-in) less like a Virgil descending into the underworld than like Beatrice, hovering above it all, immune to its vicissitudes.
The strong supporting cast keeps “On the Road” entertaining as it careens from episode to episode. Kristen Stewart explodes her image as the good-girl Bella from the “Twilight” series in her role as Marylou, Neal Cassady’s sexually prolific first wife. There are some leading lights in relatively minor roles. Viggo Mortensen does a dead-on impression of William S. Burroughs (named Old Bull Lee in the story), who even as a younger man, possessed the gravity and intensity of an ancient sage. Kirsten Dunst plays Dean’s second wife, Camille, as somewhere between long-suffering and totally exasperated, but she manages to offer the occasional glimpse into what drew them together in the first place. Though not a big name, Tom Sturridge, in his role as Carlo Marx (read: Allen Ginsberg), is the only actor who gives expression to the spontaneous feel of the book. Alone among the actors, he honestly looks like he doesn’t know what his next line is.
For fans of the novel, “On the Road” is worth seeing — maybe multiple times — out of historical interest. But as a work unto itself, it’s surprisingly stale, and lacking the essential euphoria of the novel.
TITLE: “On the Road”
CREDITS: Directed by Walter Salles; written by Jose Rivera, based on the novel by Jack Kerouac.
RATING: R for strong sexual content, drug use and overall beatnik turpitude
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS