On the Road

B+ Drama

  • Written by Jose Rivera, from the novel by Jack Kerouac
  • Directed by Walter Salles

Note: I wrote this review last summer, after a screening prior to the Mill Valley Film Festival. When I was told that the film would open in the Bay Area on January 18, I set this review to go live two days before that date. Now that it’s already live, I’ve discovered that the local release won’t happen until March (maybe). I’ve decided to leave the review up, anyway.

Jose Rivera and Walter Salles came maddeningly close to making a great film out of Jack Kerouac’s highly-regarded novel (which I haven’t read). The sense of time and place are letter-perfect. The characters are rich, surprising, and believable.  On the Road captures the dizzy and seductive joys of a drug-soaked and sexually wild youth, as well as the less joyful results. But in trying to capture what I guess is the full arc of the novel, it bogs down at times, and the picture is marred by stunt casting in the smaller roles.

Full Disclosure: I have not actually seen the entire movie. There was a problem with the DCP used for the press screening I attended, and the movie froze at what I suspect was just before the final fade-out. (You film purists can stop snickering. I’ve seen many a physical print missing far more than this.)

The film concentrates on the friendship between Sal (Sam Riley) and Dean (Garrett OntheRoadHedlund), two exceptionally good-looking young men living a carefree, nomadic existence in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They drink, smoke pot (and tobacco), go to jazz clubs, and sleep with a lot of women. Dean also sleeps with men.

The story is told through Sal’s eyes, and Riley is in nearly every scene. As I understand it, Sal is a thinly-disguised Kerouac, while Dean is based on Neal Cassady. For much of the film, there’s a third friend, Carlo–a stand-in for Allen Ginsberg.

Kristen Stewart (of Twilight fame) plays Dean’s sometimes wife, Marylou. If that sentence sounds confusing, so is their relationship. They’re newlyweds when we first meet them, but she soon leaves Dean and gets a divorce. Then she joins them again and is soon shagging both Sal and Dean. And no, jealousy does not raise its ugly head. There’s a lot of R-rated sex in this movie, and it’s filled with joy, lust, and youthful excitement, but there’s no real romance aside from the love between Sal and Dean.

But the constant travelling and dangerous driving, along with the odd jobs and petty theft needed to finance their adventures, wears everyone down. So does Dean’s complete lack of responsibility. He’s the sort of friend you can depend on to always let you down. He gets married a second time, with far more disastrous results.

Okay, everything I’ve said so far makes you think this is a great film. Why isn’t it one?

First, Sallas couldn’t resist casting big name stars in minor roles. These types of cameos work fine in a broad farce (as in Moonlight Kingdom), but in a serious drama, they take you out of the story. Instead of reacting to a new character, you’re saying “That’s Amy Adams!” Or Viggo Mortensen. Or Steve Buscemi. Or even “Oh, that’s what’s-her-name from Mad Men” (Elisabeth Moss, actually).

Second, the film runs out of steam about half an hour before it ends. The problem about people wandering aimlessly is that they’re not going anywhere. After awhile, you feel that you’ve learned everything you need to learn about Sal and Dean, and all you want is a fade-out.

To be fair, however, I wouldn’t drop the last three scenes–which do reveal some interesting twists. Even after the picture becomes repetitious and predictable, it can still occasionally surprise and delight you.