On the Road, Again
Walter Salles’ adaptation of the classic novel is as exciting as a long, traffic-clogged drive between Baltimore and Richmond
Published: March 27, 2013
On the Road
Directed by Walter Salles
Opens March 29 at the Charles Theatre
You first met Dean not long after you and your girlfriend split up, and with the coming of Dean Moriarty, hero of Jack Kerouac’s book, came that part of your life that might be called “your life on On the Road”—the Great American male adolescence where you’re stuck in your own godawful little corner of America in whatever American Decade you have come of age in since 1960, and were awakened by this book about these “mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
And then you get out of your little town, you grow up, you do things, and so the romanticism of these kids starts to seem awfully silly and inexperienced. Kerouac himself got old in the Sad American Night and looked like Walter Matthau (that would have been great casting) and when he felt the burn burn burn, it was not in the same way but was the kind of thing he went to see the doctor about, and Neal Cassady, the “jailkid” hero, eventually died of OCD—freezing to death while counting railroad tracks down in Mexico—and as you look back, you see that, from that book, you mainly learned how to be a totally irresponsible roman candle to your girlfriends, but maybe you did also learn something about male friendship that might have been valuable, and you might have also learned a few things about not ejaculating in your Wild American Prose. So when the movie On the Road, directed by Walter Salles, comes to the Great American Night, you go with the vague hope that it will somehow be holy and mad, but all you find are the forlorn rags of growing old amidst a plot as interesting as the latest MTV reality show.
The biggest problem with On the Road the movie is the casting. The book’s wild, tea-fueled prose with its twinkling stars and run-on sentences, has a way of aggrandizing the mad, mad ones it describes. Salles’ camera attempts to do the same thing, setting these adolescents in Hudsons and Packards in the Great American Desert or maybe a “cold-water pad in East Harlem,” but it’s impossible not to think that Sam Riley, the guy who plays Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac, looks and talks exactly like Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live. But Bill Hader is funny and Riley is just awkward and goofy and horrible. (SNL, please do a parody)
Garrett Hedlund, who plays Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady, is a little better, but just a little. He’s got modicum of charisma, but he comes across more as Ryan, the bad boy on the teen drama The OC, than he does the herky-jerky, speeded-out hero of Kerouac’s heated prose.
In On the Road the book (I’m waiting for the musical!), anyone who isn’t a white male comes across as a romantic stereotype, a sample of “local color.” There’s the jivey jazz cats and the senorita caliente, and these caricatures are even worse in the movie: Disneyjazz, Disneymonde, Disneyroad. The Mexico scenes are particularly terrible—surprising, perhaps, for the director of The Motorcycle Diaries. The voiceover lines about the “mamba rhythms” are the worst things you will probably ever hear in a theater (unless Pee-wee Herman has asked you for a handjob).
Kristen Stewart’s Marylou is surprisingly great, the only thing in the movie really worth seeing, which is also surprising because, as Moriarty’s first wife, she doesn’t have a whole lot to work with. She sucks Dean’s dick while he drives; gives Dean and Sal simultaneous handjobs while Dean drives; tries to have a threesome with Dean and Sal (this time they’re not driving); and finally sleeps with Sal all alone, with no prompting from Dean. And then she is gone from the movie. But somehow Stewart, otherwise known for forgettable vampire schlock, turns all of this cheesecake into something interesting. Because characters in film are built through gestures, she manages to make her character deeper and more interesting than the two ostensible leads, putting their little “angelheaded hipster” boys to shame. (The only good male part is Viggo Mortensen’s Old Bull Lee/William Burroughs, but it is ultimately a minor role.)
So you would do well to leave this interminable movie when she does, but, if you don’t, be warned: It goes on and on after that, reminding you of how boring it can be to drive, drive, drive through the Mad American Night.
On the Road is ultimately a collection of transitions. There are some fine moments, but they lead nowhere and signify nothing. So in America, when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down couch watching the long, long movie on a screener DVD and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that signals the end of this cursed movie, and nobody, nobody cares what’s going to happen to any of the characters, I think of Dean Moriarty.
But only for a minute, because the character on the screen is just a selfish, little uninteresting prick. If you want a better version of this movie, rewatch Smokey and the Bandit. Burt Reynolds is the perfect speed-driven prick, and Jerry Reed a better Sal Paradise.
> Email Baynard Woods