After filming Che Guevara’s early journals for The Motorcycle Diaries, the Brazilian director Walter Salles has clearly decided to stay mobile and go yet further, bringing an even more sacrosanct text to the big screen. In On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s crazy cats – blocked writer/self-portrait Sal, his freewheeling Neal Cassady-inspired pal Dean and the latter’s on-off squeeze Marylou – are sent forth once more, questing for the experience lying just over the horizon. Yet strangely, and somewhat disappointingly, the results aren’t notably more profound than a Road Trip or Sex Drive, those hornily skittish cine-travelogues into which some of the original book’s libertinism persisted. Even Harold and Kumar had more to say.
The film is plenty handsome, in a diversity of ways. Salles uses the widescreen to seek out hot, wet, snowy climates and deposit his good-looking leads there. Garrett Hedlund’s open-faced Dean is well matched with Sam Riley’s darker, angular Sal; after his Ian Curtis in Control and Pinky in the Brighton Rock redo, Riley appears more approachable than ever before, and the same could also be said of Twilight’s sulker-in-chief Kristen Stewart, lightened up with the addition of carnal knowledge and honey-blonde streaks. With its easy nudity and sporadic threesomes, certain viewers may be reminded of Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, another descendant of the Kerouac line, but that film had directionality, knowing when to look out of the window and make a point about a growing social divide.
Kerouac’s itinerary is far less purposeful: it’s a halting, stop-start push towards enlightenment in which three movers-and-shakers, unleashed from society, brush up against those further down the liberation spectrum. As brought to the screen, these passers-by have the same destabilising impact as those leftfield celeb cameos in modern American comedies. Kirsten Dunst looks the period part as Dean’s wife; it’s a pity, then, that for much of the film, she inhabits a universe neither Kerouac nor Salles has much time for. Amy Adams is a dishevelled mother; Steve Buscemi a family man with a secret. One senses these name performers have been drafted in out of a recognition these aren’t characters so much as sketches, roles that don’t get any more substantial as seen in the rear-view mirror.
I hesitate to say this, but you may come away unconvinced by Kerouac as a writer, and by On the Road itself as anything other than a relic of a particular upbeat moment in American history. If the film isn’t bad, exactly – it’s well-crafted and semi-watchable, while generating none of the excitement of the original prose – its timing is wholly lousy. The movies have had decades to film this tale of wild, extreme social mobility; it finally pulls out into an immobilising recession, expecting us to engage with a set of carefree kids getting their rocks off on somebody else’s dime. All On the Road now has to say is we were young and free once, and it was once as easy to get laid as it was to avoid STDs. This may or may not be true – either way, I’m not so sure it’s what anybody wants to hear right now.
On the Road opens in selected cinemas from today.