The long-awaited \'On The Road\' is a good-hearted disappointment, according to FilmInk\'s Andrew Moraitis.
File Walter Salles\' well-meaning version of On The Road under \"nice try\". It\'s a long list (including John Huston\'s Moby Dick, Julian Jarrold\'s Brideshead Revisited, Jack Clayton\'s The Great Gatsby and Danny Boyle\'s The Beach), wherein filmmakers\' ambitions frequently surpass their aptitude for specific material. A respectful, meditative and boring adaptation of Jack Kerouac\'s beat novel, the Salles film isn\'t bad or poorly made; it\'s just ordinary, a personalised but oddly apolitical rendering of the stream-of-consciousness classic. You don\'t fault either the Brazilian filmmaker or his The Motorcycle Diaries screenwriter Jose Rivera for their intentions (which are ambitious in conception), just their mediocre execution, as they fail to define a cinematic structure for Kerouac\'s study of love, friendship and sexual/ personal freedom. Salles has the integrity for this material, but he lacks the ability to accomplish his artistic vision, leading to an approach that is uncomfortably wedged between lowbrow bawdiness and middlebrow sentimentality.
Control\'s Sam Riley is author surrogate Sal Paradise, a would-be writer who is determined to discover himself in a series of road trips across North and South America. He meets the endlessly charming lothario Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund, in a surprising turn), an ex-con jumping from one relationship to another (which includes marriages to Kristen Stewart\'s teen Marylou and Kirsten Dunst\'s Camille). Based on the life of Kerouac, the story also examines Sal\'s relationship with other writers, including Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge\'s Carlo Marx) and William S. Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee).
Many attempts have been made to adapt the film, including a \'90s version by producer Francis Ford Coppola (with Ethan Hawke and Brad Pitt attached as the leads, and Tim Roth, when he was still an interesting actor, linked to the role of Old Bull Lee) and a later incarnation by – of all people – Joel Schumacher (with Billy Crudup and Colin Farrell). You can understand the appeal of the material: Kerouac\'s story is, essentially, the granddaddy of the modern road film, and the material\'s sexy mixture of eroticism, personal growth and artistic ambitions must be exhilarating for filmmakers tired of the endless grind of monolithic Hollywood productions (which possibly explains why Schumacher – burned by the special effects-heavy Batman franchise – sought artistic relief in a location-orientated production).
However, it\'s also obvious – from this film, at least – why those filmmakers struggled to nail their adaptations. The material\'s structure isn\'t overtly cinematic, as Sal isn\'t a richly developed or particularly interesting character. This is fine for the source material, but the more superficial demands of cinema require a greater degree of interpersonal and external conflict: it seems interesting things only ever occur to other characters. Later, a raw confrontation between Dean and a frustrated Camille highlights the dramatic deficiencies of the rest of the film. For the first time, values are challenged in a significant manner, and the characters are asked to make difficult choices.
In some respects, you admire Salles and Rivera\'s ambitions: many dialogue-heavy sequences are prolonged, with an emphasis on mood and detail over plot progression. Yet, these choices are undermined by Salles\' lack of editing nous: the film is lopsided structurally, with stream-of-consciousness-style montages sitting uneasily alongside sit-down-and-talk sequences. Every time you expect the film to truly let fly, the film bogs itself down with an overly reverential approach; trying to both capture a specific period and comment upon that timeframe, Salles ends up accomplishing neither. In this respect, this film\'s banal questions about Sal\'s writing process (oh, will the young writer finally write his magnum opus?) seem pallid and inconsequential in comparison to other cinematic depictions of the writer\'s process, especially the Coens\' Barton Fink and David Cronenberg\'s inventive, genuinely challenging adaptation of Naked Lunch.
Despite these issues, Riley gives an okay performance. Although frequently overshadowed by the other actors, the Brit nicely underplays the character\'s curiosity and selflessly registers the more extreme behaviour of the other characters. Hedlund, however, is revelatory. To be fair to the other performers, Hedlund has the best role as the funny, charming and intense companion. Dean is the seemingly fully-formed alter ego, a mixture between a hedonistic id and the wise superego. Yet, Hedlund (a vacuous pretty boy in previous roles) is persuasive and appealing, so much so that – when he\'s positioned as a sex god-type – you don\'t wince in embarrassment. The other actors are fine too (especially Dunst), although the wan Sturridge is a little difficult to take.
Heavy, unadventurous and low-key, Walter Salles\' On The Road is a missed opportunity.