Today: February 28, 2024
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On The Road

In the wake of his father’s death, aspiring New York writer

In the wake of his father’s death, aspiring New York writer
Sal Paradise (Sam Riley as the
novel’s Jack Kerouac stand-in) meets
and becomes fascinated by the handsome, hedonistic, charming ex-con Dean
Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund as Neal Cassady’s alter-ego) and his
jailbait wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Bonding over a shared love of booze,
dope, jazz, sex and a belief in personal freedom, the two friends are
determined not to be tied down or constricted by straight life. Hungry for experience, they hit the
road together, crisscrossing America in search of adventure and meaning. But it’s during a fateful trip down
Mexico way that their friendship will face its greatest test.

How much you get out off Walter Salles’ On The Road will probably depend on your
appreciation of the Beats in general and Jack Kerouac’s magnum opus in
particular. If you’re a fan, you
can probably bump that rating on the right up at least a point. Long considered unfilmable despite
cinema’s obsession with road movies, Kerouac’s autobiographical novel is a
largely plot-free, aimless meander around ‘40s America in the company of two
rather pleased-with-themselves, intense young bucks for whom the journey, not
the destination, is what’s important, man! Nothing much happens. Their wanderlust and search for
themselves sees them taking shedloads of drugs, driving fast and bumping into
the thinly-disguised likes of William
Burroughs
(the novel’s Old Bull Lee) and Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx)
before the compromises and sacrifices of adulthood force them to re-evaluate
their relationship.

Like his adaptation of Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries, Salles’ On The Road is very pretty but pretty vacuous. There’s spectacular vistas, beautiful
landscapes, splendid isolation, the highways and byways of America. But like The Motorcycle Diaries it’s a bit too respectful, too
humourless. It lacks energy, has
none of the appeal of the book, fails to articulate just why the book and
Kerouac should matter 60-odd years down the road. It’s an aimless, joyless cul-de-sac that feels both overlong
and too glib, it lacks depth.
Never has staying up late, downing bottles of beer and whisky, smoking
dope, taking speed, driving classic cars really fast and shagging pretty young
ingénues looked quite this bland and tedious.

Hedlund, in a star-making turn, is wonderful as the
charming, selfish, frequently naked, Moriarty; a beautiful, rampant appetite
made flesh, his boyish innocence undercutting his thoughtless irresponsible
self-absorption. Riley’s Paradse
however never quite rings true. As
essentially Kerouac, Riley feels too old, too arch, too passive. You never get the sense of an inner
life, the desire to create, an artistic drive, a lust for experience. Whether he’s taking speed, bar-hopping,
tapping at his typewriter or indulging in threesomes, Riley feels too earnest,
like he’s constantly trying to remember the advice of his vocal coach even
while he’s being wanked off by the little girl from Twilight.
Disappointingly, Paradise and Moriarty never act on their homoerotic
desire for each other, their sharing of Marylou the closest they get, but had
they consummated their love perhaps it might have explained the wide-eyed look
of constipated surprise Riley wears for much of the film.

The supporting cast are great. All of the women are shockingly underwritten but as Marylou,
Kristen Stewart is a revelation, a tough but vulnerable jailbait siren who
bewitches both Moriarty and Paradise while Kirsten
Dunst
as Moriarty’s second wife Camille comes across not as the shrew she
could so easily have been but as a woman pushed to the edge by the selfish
manchild she’s indulged. Viggo Mortensen’s Old Bull Lee is a
resolutely macho but amusing William Burroughs impersonator, Amy Adams brings a touch of demented
genius to her role as Bull’s wife Jane and Steve
Buscemi
practically walks of with the film as a gay salesman Moriarty
hustles.

Perhaps the finest performance of the film however, if
you’re not a fan of the Beats or self-absorbed pretty boys, comes from Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as the
straitlaced Galatea, the wife of one of Moriarty and Paradise’s traveling
companions who is unceremoniously dumped at the sweaty Louisiana home of
smacked out junkies Bull and Jane.
Her rage and frustration at her treatment and her lack of tolerance for
this pretentious, self-indulgent boy’s club could almost be the audience’s.

Still, if you’re a fan of the novel, love beautiful shots of
highways or have always wanted to see the wee girl from Twilight’s tits, you’ll find On
The Road
a diverting couple of hours.

David Watson

David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email: david.watson@filmjuice.com

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