Kerouac’s generation defining beatnik novel On the Road is a book that burns with a passion and intensity for life and discovery, qualities that are, unfortunately, wholly absent from Walter Salles’ adaptation.
The film follows Sal Paradise (played by Sam Riley and based on Kerouac himself – many of the characters have real life counterparts) for numerous years, following several friends and road trips. The voiceover informs us that the ‘mad to live’ Dean Moriarty is the main influence on Sal’s experiences. We expect then to witness wild life-discovering adventures; and instead subjected to trite parties and long car journeys revolving around discussions that make almost all the characters appear shallow and self-absorbed. Even flashes of notable performances – mostly from the brilliant but underused Viggo Mortensen – cannot make the characters relatable.
Ineffectuality is something endemic throughout the film. It is very hard to collect a semblance of meaning from the disjointed narrative, which jumps both in time and in setting. We are left with trailing lines of story, which are almost concluded in a genuinely sad manner at the end, if not for the fact that the entire enterprise seems almost completely passionless.
That is not to give up entirely on On the Road. The film does manage to impart some moments of fervour, most particularly in Sam Riley’s voiceovers of verbatim extracts from the source material. These glimpses of greatness – along with some beautiful cinematography and a fabulous soundtrack – are moments that fleetingly elevate an otherwise tiresome movie.
On the Road, though, is best avoided. It is bloated, not just in its excessive two hours-twenty running time, but also in its feeling of its own (misguided) self-worth. Better to pick up your old copy of the book, or spend the cost of a ticket and go out and buy it. That is where you will find the passion, the urgency to discover, the wish to join those actually burningly mad characters on the road. Unfortunately you won’t find them in the film.