There are many classic American works of literature whose subject matters lend themselves to movie adaptations. On The Road is definitely not one of them. Partially populated by transient supporting characters and paced by rambling journeys with little more than vague, easily altered itineraries, On The Road is, even to its biggest fans, a bit of a hot mess. There’s really no way to reign the material into a coherent structure without altering the hungry and aggressive spirit Jack Kerouac breathed into the work, and since that’s kind of the whole point, making a good, neat adaptation is impossible.
Director Walter Salles keeps his new version messy but does take some steps to bring a bit of order to the clutter. He drops some characters, depicts some events out of order, alters some scenes and tries to bring coherence to the roving nature of Sal’s (Sam Riley) life. Unfortunately, his efforts don’t go quite far enough. The result still drifts around far too much to be logically followed. Characters are added without any real explanation as to who they are, and they’re dropped just as quickly without real resolution. At more than two hours, On The Road is a long movie, but it’s definitely not long enough to accommodate its wandering scope.
The basic story follows Sal as he travels around the United States and Mexico looking for inspiration to write the novel he knows is lingering somewhere inside him. More often than not, he’s joined by the charismatic and recklessly irresponsible Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) who enjoys stealing, sleeping around and staying out till dawn. Together, they do everything from pick up pissed off wives in Louisiana to contract dysentery south of the border. In theory, these adventures should be hilarious to watch, but On The Road really doesn’t have a sense of humor about itself. It’s so interested in having bullshit, stoned out conversations about finding the “it” inside a piece of live music and presenting the downsides to Moriarty’s devil-may-care attitude that it doesn’t stop to laugh about trying to buy marijuana from children in Mexico.
For a story about a series of adventures to work, the joy the characters feel needs to come across. In the novel, Kerouac does that through his writing style. The energy and the passion Sal and Dean feel for life are conveyed through the pulsating and forceful language he chooses. Since a movie adaptation can’t rely as much on words, the film needed to take a different approach. It needed to make Sal and Dean funnier or more likeable or more responsible, but it doesn’t. It just follows their adventures with a pretty somber tone, which, when taken at face value, are frequently foolish, self-indulgent and illegal.
Even though they mostly come across as unlikeable assholes, the chemistry between Hedlund and Riley is actually great. When she’s along for the ride, Kristen Stewart, who plays Marylou, is a nice addition too. All three give excellent acting performances and really make the most of what they’re given, even if it’s ultimately in service to a film that doesn’t quite work. Ditto for seasoned actors like Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi, Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Elizabeth Moss who pop up during the film’s travels as the aforementioned transient supporting characters.
On The Road would have worked better if its source material was merely used as inspiration or if it altered its tone in order to be less serious and more fun. As it stands, it’s nothing more than a mediocre showpiece for some very good, though not quite Academy recognition-worthy acting performances.