It's perhaps a testament to my resistance to this material that I've never felt moved to read Jack Kerouac's On The Road, but I have to suspect it's better than this disappointing adaptation, or at least more interesting.
First things first: As a general matter, any story that proposes that young writers are the most interesting and amazing people in the world — as a largely autobiographical story by a writer is in danger of doing — begins with an uphill battle. In fact, any film in which all the characters seem utterly convinced of their own importance and coolness from the outset has the same battle. No one wants to hear a story in which the underlying thesis is that the person who wrote the story is better than the people hearing it.
There are times when, quite oddly, this version of On The Road feels like nothing so much as Goodfellas: the jazzy music, the chest-beating narration, the warm nostalgia for the days when men could just be men. That nostalgia often turns distasteful, however, as when the slang gets so thick that it's like watching the most awkward parts of West Side Story. If, that is, West Side Story had featured a gang of poets.
What I wanted from On The Road was something that would capture what people love about Beat literature. What I got was a movie that genuinely draws all its pleasures from people speaking painfully affected dialogue and doing lots of drugs and having lots of sex with each other. It's exactly the parts of life that are better to experience than they are to hear about. It's all just so much less interesting than you think it is when it's happening to you, even if — perhaps especially if — you are taking copious notes.
As a matter of fact, on a similar note, it's one of my major theories of modern cinema that your characters had better be extraordinarily interesting if you want me to spend any considerable time in your film watching them get high. It matters not whether it's meth or benzadrine; watching people do drugs is stultifyingly boring unless the people are extremely fascinating. Whatever Kerouac's friends were like in real life and however he drew their analogues in the book, the people in the movie are not extremely fascinating. Similarly, there's a lot of sex in the film and a lot of it is supposed to be daring — look, three people! Look, two men! Look, they're doing it in the car! But as with the drugs, the handling of the sex is so glib that it's actually dull.
The primary relationship in the film is between Sal (Sam Riley) and Dean (Garrett Hedlund). Sal is the contemplative writer — the Kerouac surrogate — and Dean is the charismatic, marrow-sucking friend Sal both envies and resents. While Hedlund's performance shows glimmers of promise at times, there's nothing to the way these characters are written that inspires any need to know anything more about them. Unfortunately, having a character say "Dig it!" doesn't make you a faithful recreator of mid-century men.
Around these two poorly defined men, other people orbit. There is the Ginsberg-like Carlo (Tom Sturridge), a character drawn here as so self-consciously writer-like that his every appearance inspires twitches. He actually says at one point, while pondering how to describe his feelings, "Melancholy's too languorous!" With apologies to the book if that appears in it, even in the context of one of the most important outbreaks of literature in the 20th century, that is a line that will get a guy punched.
Many of the other minor characters appear to exist in order to provide cameo roles for famous actors. There is a shady guy they pick up in their travels, played by Steve Buscemi. There is the briefly seen Old Bull Lee, played by Viggo Mortensen. And there are a whole slew of women played by actresses much better-known than most of the primary men over whom they are forced to swoon over and over in this movie: Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, and Elisabeth Moss. The women exist in the film to have sex with the men and yell at them. Mostly, whether they are romantic/sexual prospects or just hags, they are there simply to hold the men back in various ways. They are Manic Nix-ie Dream Girls, and none of them get anything remotely interesting to do. Of course, the guys don't particularly, either.
What's ultimately wrong with On The Road is that the film envisions everyone Sal meets as nothing but fodder. When you're actually reading what's meant to be his book, as On The Road readers are, that might work. But here, you're really seeing the story of how he wrote his book. It's one too many degrees of remove, which makes his wanderings seem painfully self-indulgent and insignificant. Here, he picks cotton like a dilettante, to give himself something to write about. What other people do for survival, he does for the experience. He loves the people he meets in his travels not because of any unique humanity they might possess, but because they fulfill his fantasies about spending a lot of time with earthy simple people who will be great in his book.
Part of the problem with featuring characters in a film who are quite this convinced of their own importance and glamour is that when they don't live up to it, it's quite conspicuous.
On The Road opens in limited release in the United States on December 21, 2012.