By I. J. Steinberg (Atlanta, GA)
There is a myth that I feel exists in film. The myth is that every single popular book regardless of cultural impact or significance should be made into a movie at some point. “You can make a good movie out of anything,” come the replies of the defendants. Fair enough, but when I see films like this my faith is a little more than shaken. Last year’s On the Road, is an abysmal exercise in tedium and self-loathing, a shameful adaptations of Jack Kerouac’s famous book about existential discovery and personal journeys. It’s too bad as I personally find the book peerless. But based on good source material is just that, based, and this miserable little film couldn’t have missed the point further if it tried.
To the film’s credit, the screenplay courtesy of José Rivera sticks to the book. The story follows young New York intellectual Sal Paradise (played by Sam Riley), a struggling writer yearning to find that great American story and sate the burning passion that lies in his heart. Hanging out with friends of his college can only stimulate him for so long.
One day his luck changes when one of his friends introduces him to an old jailbird friend of his by the name of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). To quote Sal himself “with the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road”, the friendship between these two is almost instant. Sal sees a kindred spirit in Dean, the kind of crazy wanderlust spirit that could save from his life of typewriting banality and take him some place grand. Throughout their journey’s they meet new interesting people (most are from the book) and through various drug trips and conversations in which the two boys find themselves, for better or for worse.
Now, at first this seems like a great setup for a story, and indeed all the pieces are there for that story to come together. However, having the right ingredients doesn’t mean your cake will always bake and indeed for the effort the cast put into their performances they have almost nothing to work with thanks to the screenplay, which is by far the worst offender in this whole film. Now no disrespect to Rivera, the man has actually written brilliantly in the past. Based on his portfolio however, he works best when he is writing original standalone stories. His only work in adaptations comes from minor writing jobs on small-scale television shows. I say this because it’s clear the man needs more practice in larger scale adaptation, I say this because translating one medium to another is extremely difficult, and I say this because the dialogue is a mess.
Again it’s a shame as the all cast gives convincing performances. Riley and Hedlund in particular make outstanding look a likes for the leads in the book and have a palpable sense of chemistry. And it must be said that Kristen Stewart does a fairly good job as the stoned misguided Marylou who has now been elevated from her role in the books form simply Dean’s old girlfriend. Out of all the performances though Tom Sturridge steals every scene he’s in as the wild poet Carlo Marx.
Just as the cast is settling into their roles however, the script gives them absolutely nothing to work with. Adapting word for word the dialogue from the book is just silly, as many moments of dialogue were written in waxing romantic tones, which was characteristic of Kerouac’s beat generation. Now for some of the characters this works. Carlo Marx for example works so well because of the dialogue they give him. Unfortunately whenever anyone else starts talking in these long drones of poetic nonsense they grow more and more pretentious. Compare this dialogue to the book for example and suddenly you have an entire log of first person narration to back up the romanticized words.
Film being a visual medium can’t afford to have that, so what we’re left with is all of the style of Kerouac’s prose with none of the substance. Scenes of people singing what I’m sure are very emotional songs that unfortunately carry no weight because the movie can’t decide how to handle the more intricate parts of the On the Road narrative. The original story had a reason for all the flowery language, namely to cover up the tortured and rather selfish thoughts Sal was thinking. Here the film tries to compensate for that loss by relying solely on the subtle nuances of Riley’s face. Not a bad idea per say, but the editing work is so sloppy that we can’t focus on those subtleties for very long.
I usually don’t take too long to mention the director but in this case, I had no idea who this man was. This adaptation comes to us from director Walter Salles, best known for his work as a prolific Brazilian director. Salles has a true eye for the art house film genre and exploits its sensibilities like mad in all of his work. A story like On the Road though, like it or not, has become one of those staple American stories and deserves to be more than just your standard art house film. Ah, but if ever there was a word to sum up the way this was filmed, standard would certainly be it. I shouldn’t even talk about this I consider it a massive disservice to you and myself. Basically if you’ve seen any art house film you’ve seen this. Shots transition from one to another in fast frenetic edits, usually flashing some pretty piece of scenery before cutting back to action. All of this in attempt to fool you into thinking the film is saying more than it actually is. Fast editing with flashy cinematography was a bad idea in Moulin Rouge! and time has not sweetened it.
I could go on about some of the others things that this film got wrong. Such as the gratuitous sex scenes that miss the point of sex not being sexy, and in the end leads to Kristen Stewart giving the two male leads hand jobs while driving. Or the fact that the drug trip scenes are so over the top they’re laughable. Overall though things like this just highlight the fact that On the Road is not a good adaptation. If the cheap art house editing tricks, horrible dialogue, and pretentious characters weren’t enough to deter you consider this, the film takes a story about two young men finding themselves across the post white man America, and turns into a raunchy American tale. Just as last year’s Les Miserable failed for making me question the source material so too does this movie as well. Do yourself a favor, and just read the book.