Released, pulled out of release and now released again, Walter Salles’ film of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road finally makes it to town and (like the other Salles films I’ve seen) seems more taxidermied than adapted. Not that it’s a bad movie — rather, it’s a strangely inert one. Considering the source material — not to mention all the naked (albeit rather coyly naked) flesh and gyrating bodies — that’s almost some kind of accomplishment. It takes a particular sensibility to make the material here ultimately…well, dull, but Salles pulls it off as if it’s second nature. Maybe it is. The last time he and screenwriter Jose Rivera got together, the result was The Motorcycle Diaries — a similarly well-intentioned, nice-looking picture that lacked excitement. I’m inclined to think that both films suffer from an overdose of reverence — which is perhaps not the best way to capture irreverent stories or characters.
Assuming that there are readers who don’t know, I’ll explain that On the Road is a more or less autobiographical book about Kerouac and his circle that uses aliases for the names (this seems to have been at the insistence of the publishers). What it amounts to is a kind of wandering narrative of two men — Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady (Garrett Hedlund) — as they wander post-World War II America in search of meaning — and in search of themselves. It is essentially the cornerstone of the Beat movement, which I admit is not something I’m all that in tune with except as that era’s counterculture. The thing is that Salles’ film does nothing much to pull me into the era. Instead of making me feel the sense of alienation, the sense of exploration, the dizzy raptures of sex, drugs and a cool jazz-infused society in a world otherwise in the grips of conformity, I merely got the feeling of dispassionate reportage. Worse, it feels bloodless, lifeless — even textbookish. There’s not even a hint of exhilarating madness.
If the film had amended the book in such a way that it centered on Kerouac writing the book itself, it could have been a brilliant approach — rather like the way David Cronenberg turned William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch into a film more about writing Naked Lunch than an adaptation of the book. But here the ending incorporating him writing the book is just window dressing. If ever a book deserved a film that delves into the subtext of the characters, this is it — and that’s exactly what we don’t get. Instead, we get a visually appealing, satisfactorily acted, reasonably solid approximation of the book. It’s fine for what it is, but I don’t think I should have ended up wondering if Salles and screenwriter Rivera ever stopped to think about what all of this meant. Rated R for strong sexual content, drug use and language.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas