By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
A movie adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” was conceived immediately upon the book’s landmark publication in 1957, and lots of people have tried to get it going since.
Kerouac asked Marlon Brando to co-star opposite Kerouac himself in one alternate-reality possibility that never came to fruition; that might’ve been a disaster, but I’d sure like to have seen it. Nobody finished a movie adaptation, until now.
This film is tame enough to make you wonder if the concept of adaptation, in this case, is foolish. The book lives in the voice of its author and the evocation of characters and their time; the movie recounts all of that in dutiful but dull fashion, as though several degrees removed from it all.
Set around the turn of the 1950s, the story introduces us to Sal Paradise (played by Sam Riley, star of “Control”), a struggling writer who lives with his mother in Queens. Paradise is Kerouac’s alter ego, and the movie casually overlaps things from Kerouac’s own life into the character, as it does with other thinly disguised figures.
From the New York bohemian scene, Sal finds deliverance in the form of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a holy goof with a tendency to drive across the country, talking all the way. The film arranges itself around several car trips, but mostly gets bogged down in what happens when the characters stop moving.
Dean has a girlfriend (Kristen Stewart, trying to shed the “Twilight” trap), and several others (Kirsten Dunst plays a voice of sanity in all this) stashed around the country. Sal, entranced by his hero’s outgoing, amoral life-force, trails along, gathering material for his writing.
Director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera, who previously constructed a rather engaging road movie in “The Motorcycle Diaries,” have added material that was cut from the original novel, as well as linking the fictionalized character to their real-life counterparts (such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs).
I don’t know why they chose to do that, but it muddies the experience by half. The actors are a let-down, too; Riley is enigmatic, and Kristen Stewart doesn’t have much to work with. Viggo Mortensen plays the Burroughs character with authority and humor.
Garrett Hedlund, a promising actor from “Tron: Legacy,” is halfway there as the dynamic Dean Moriarty, a character based on Kerouac’s maniacal friend Neal Cassady. He doesn’t really look (or sound) like the character from the book, but he’s committed to the difficult part.
The actors can’t make a dent in the movie’s self-consciousness. You can sense the movie’s confusion; it doesn’t want to be a staid adaptation of a literary classic, so some sex and language is in there, but it doesn’t have the nerve to get too crazy.
Worse, there’s little excitement here of the sort the novel catches, of friendship, of youth, of needing to be something new. Maybe “On the Road” calls for a movie by people who aren’t so smart. Or maybe the book stands just fine as it is, and a really fitting film version, Marlon Brando notwithstanding, was never in the cards.
“On the Road”
A tame adaptation of the Jack Kerouac novel, about a writer (Sam Riley) excited by a maniacal new friend (Garrett Hedlund) who loves to drive. The film’s self-conscious approach doesn’t bring Kerouac’s world to life, and the casting doesn’t hit the sweet spot, either. With Kristen Stewart.
Rated: R for nudity, language.