Adapted from Jack Kerouac‘s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, On the Road follows the misadventures of young writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) who takes up with the charismatic Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) for a hedonistic journey across the country that involves sex, drugs, the defining music and philosophy of the Beat Generation, and both Dean’s girlfriend Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst).
Francis Ford Coppola purchased the movie rights in 1979, but spent decades unable to get the meandering period piece centered around a group of self-important characters off the ground. In late 2010 his patience was rewarded by director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera who were finally able to bring the project to fruition.
On the Road is, at best, a mixed success. The relationship between Riley and Hedlund succeeds while Salles sprinkles in solid small supporting performances from recognizable actors such as Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, and Alice Braga.
Salles also delivers a visually interesting and stylish film on a budget that (despite being filmed largely in Canada) fits the period locations of Kerouac’s novel. However the movie, much like nearly every character it showcases, feels a little empty. Using many of Kerouac’s own words for narration, Rivera’s script works well to bring the spirit and romanticism of the novel to the bright light of the big screen even if pieces of the overall narrative don’t quite work.
Although both put in good performances, neither Stewart or Dunst is a real standout and too many of the movie’s cameo supporting performances feel like stunt casting (although I thought Braga was terrific in the role of Sal’s Mexican lover Terry). The success of the film falls squarely on the shoulders of Sal and Dean (and to a lesser extent Tom Sturridge as the pair’s third wheel), who are so insufferable that, at times, it’s hard not to roll your eyes. Still, I’ll give Salles credit, the film never bogs down or looses it’s way (which for a story that meanders as much as Kerouac’s is certainly a success).
Originally published in 1957, there’s a reason why (even as beloved as it is) that it took nearly six decades for On the Road to be adapted into a film. Even if the story doesn’t quite work as well on-screen as it does on the printed page, it’s certainly worth a look, especially for the movie’s two leads and Salles ability to capture the look and feel of a particular time and place during which their friendship ran its course.