It’s a bad sign chilling here in lovely Barcelona in the lobby of the Hotel Colon (which I’m told has a different meaning in Spanish, thank heavens), thinking about the movie I saw to escape the rain last night, that, despite having seen the trailer and read about it a few months (or weeks, maybe?) ago, I had to ask the internet if On The Road had actually come and gone in the states, or had yet to open. Well, seems it’s some of both. One of those slow releases meant to build word of mouth, it’s playing all over now, so people across the globe have the opportunity to fall asleep watching a classic novel all about restless youth drop dead on the silver screen.
Which is perhaps overly harsh. It’s not all that bad. It’s practically falling all over itself with its cast, which includes Viggo Mortensen (as William S. Burroughs), Steve Buscemi (as a creepy old dude), Amy Adams (who sweeps lizards out of trees and chats about blow-jobs), Kristen Stewart (as Mary Lou, the naked party girl), Kirtsten Dunst (as the whiny straight girl), and so on and so forth. It’s directed by Walter Salles, who previously made the more entertaining The Motorcycle Diaries. Which is clearly why producer Francis Ford Coppola, who bought the rights to On The Road in the ’70s or so, hired him to direct it. He makes movies about young historical figures on the road! Sign him up!
Of course Coppola almost made the movie with Ethan Hawke as Sal and Brad Pitt as Dean. So we dodged a bullet there. This version stars that guy from Worst-Movie-Ever contender Tron: Legacy, Garrett Hedlund, as Dean, and Sam Riley as Sal, neither of whom embarasses themselves, though I kind of hated Riley’s Jack Kerouac voice impression, a weirdly fake rasp. Mortensen does a better job with his Burroughs impression.
But the acting isn’t really the issue. The issue is the lack of momentum. We have here a bunch of characters who drive all over, hang out in New York and Denver and San Francisco and Mexico, have more sex than a troop of bonobos, smoke weed, drink booze, recite poetry and so on and so forth, and while with those activities going on one can’t help but remain at least mildly interested in what happens next, what happens next is, and continues until the end to be, surprisingly dull and lifeless.
These characters should be leaping off the screen, punching you in the head and insulting your mother. They should be jazzing you up and getting you off. They should be inspired, mad, raving, and impulsive! Instead we get an incredibly passive Sal watching and narrating from a vast distance for two hours, until finally, in 30 seconds of screen time, he busts out one of the most beloved novels of the 20th century. Reading it, you’d be inclined to think he was rather involved in all of those adventures and not merely observing them from on high. Watching it, you have to assume his book is as limp as a wet dishrag.
There must be a way to translate the beat of the beats to film, a way to mimic the stomping musical jazz the characters talked and fucked and wrote with, but Salles, though he tries hard, comes up empty, with jittery editing that tries to cover the lack of pacing, Kerouac’s words narrated to make up for the lack of poetry on screen, artifice where earthiness is needed. Breathless this ain’t, though it sure wishes it was.
Kerouac famously wrote On The Road on one continuous scroll of paper he ran through his typerwiter, pounding it out in a matter of weeks. Where’s that feeling in the movie? On The Road–the novel–is about jumping into the mad flow of life and reporting on it from within. The movie is all told from without. And I never even liked the book that much! It’s just that the more I think about the movie, the more I love the book in retrospect. For my taste, Kerouac was no Burroughs, but goddammit, man, On The Road rolled along, didn’t it? It had music in it!