out of Five
Running time: 137
Walter Salles' adaptation of Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel is beautifully shot and boasts both strong performances and a superb soundtrack, but its more-or-less faithful recreation of the book proves as much a hindrance as a strong point, thanks to a relative lack of plot and a collection of largely unlikeable characters.
What's it all about?
Directed by Walter Salles, On The Road is based on the 1957 beat novel by Jack Kerouac and stars Sam Riley as aspiring writer Sal Paradise (Kerouac's alter ego) in 1947 New York, who falls in with charismatic traveller Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and his 16 year old wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart). After bumming around various New York jazz clubs with mutual friend Carlo (Tom Sturridge), the trio embark on a road trip and encounter various colourful characters, including Dean's mistress Camille (Kirsten Dunst), eccentric writer Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen), attractive farm worker Terry (Alice Braga) and a seedy salesman (Steve Buscemi), who pays Dean for sex after bluntly announcing, ‘You know, I don't really like women...’
Riley delivers a solid performance as Sal, though his role is essentially a passive, observational one; consequently, there's no real chemistry between him and either of his co-stars, so the various sex scenes (notably Marylou dishing out a double handjob as all three ride naked in the front seat) lack any discernible heat. Hedlund is equally good, doing a convincing job of conveying Moriarty's (and by implication, real-life beat guru and character inspiration Neal Cassady's) infectious charisma.
Stewart acquits herself nicely as Marylou (even if her brief topless scene feels a little calculated), but the supporting honours are roundly stolen by Mortensen and Buscemi, both of whom are terrific in their brief cameo roles and leave you wanting more.
Aside from the literary pleasures of writerly cameo-spotting (Old Bull Lee is clearly Burroughs, Carlo is Ginsberg and so on), the film is also gorgeous to look at, courtesy of Eric Gautier's sumptuous cinematography and some top-notch production design work. There's also a terrific, carefully-chosen soundtrack that's authentic to the novel.
It's fair to say that Salles has done an extremely impressive job of recreating the novel (particularly in capturing the jazz-like rhythms of the prose) and that, as such, fans of the book will probably love the film. However, the flipside of the faithful adaptation is that the problems of the book (long considered unfilmable) become the problems of the film, namely that there's very little in the way of a satisfying plot and it's difficult to engage with the characters on an emotional level because none of them, Sal included, are really very likeable.
Although a commendably faithful adaptation of the novel, On The Road is ultimately something of a mixed bag; it's beautifully shot and features strong performances, a superb soundtrack and impressive production design, but it's hindered by a lack of plot and fails to engage on an emotional level.