On The Road

on-the-road-posterPublished in 1957, Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel remains one of the most influential works coming from the Beat Generation. Following a group of friends as they travel back and forth throughout the U.S., it’s not hard to believe how this book proved to be so revolutionary at the time: Indulging in drugs, alcohol, sexual excesses and embracing the arts – most particularly writing and jazz – these characters symbolized a new type of freedom in an era known for its seriousness.

Director Walter Salles is no stranger to initatic journeys having directed the captivating Motorcycle Diaries about Che’s early years and his classic, careful approach seemed to make him the perfect candidate to transpose Mr. Kerouac’s oeuvre to the screen.

The first thing one will notice is that he – unsurprisingly – has crafted a film that aims to be a close adaptation of a novel. He doesn’t seem to be bothered by rhythm, the narrative advancing at a descriptive, sober and literary pace, avoiding any directional fluff or diversion. His goal is to be faithful to the book, not to appeal to a new generation by making this film visually more enticing. Emphasizing that he is clearly targeting Kerouac fans and the art-house crowd, the movie features some recognizable indie cameos from Viggo Mortensen (Easter Promises) to Steve Buscimi (Boardwalk Empire) and Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men). Of course there are also Kristen Stewart (Twilight) and Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man) but it’s also for them a way to gain indie credentials in more risqué roles.

As for the movie itself, it can be summarized in five – easy – points: they drink, they fuck, they do drugs, they travel and they write, which in the 50’s was pretty rebellious and was fulfilling the youth’s need to break apart from strict parenting rules – no wonder Rock ’n’ roll and movies such asRebel Without A Cause were also so influential. But contrary to those, Kerouac was preaching for a more peaceful solution often characterized as Bohemian hedonism. And this brings us to the main question, as to whether this film – and story – can still have an impact on us today.

Unfortunately, I am sad to report that On The Road doesn’t have much to bring us. At a time when alcohol, drugs, sex and traveling have become all too accessible for teenagers and adults alike, Mr. Salles’ film looks pretty tamed. After an hour spent watching them do the same thing over and over again, I started losing interest in the story pretty quickly – of course you might argue that having myself indulged in some quite memorable moments of debauchery, it is normal it might leave me indifferent but I think most kids would share my point of view here. It seems to me that On The Road might actually work better on paper simply because at least you can work your imagination while reading. In Mr. Salle’s movie, you are just taken passively for a – way too long – ride and his cautious, formatted direction can’t bring the essence of Kerouac’s work to life. At least director Terry Williams understood the need to create an exuberant piece when it came to adapting writer Hunter S. Thompson’s drug excesses in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But even in that case, I ended up losing patience, after watching relentlessly recurring scenes of depravity.

What you mostly get out of watching On The Road is that movies featuring drugs and alcohol do not make for great entertainment, unless you might be in a similar state. Being drunk or high is only fun when you are experiencing it, not when you are just a spectator. The only way it can get contagious for the audience is if it is effectively used as a premise for humor, which might explain the success of movies such asTrainspotting and The Hang Over.

Despite some great source material, some pretty decent acting and a personal taste for adventure, On The Roadjust made me want to cut short this trip and get back home.

Director: Walter Salles – Actors: Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams – Running Time: 2:17 – Year: 2012 – Country: USA

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Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.