The best parts of the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel On the Road involve voice-over excerpts from the book, read by British actor Sam Riley, who portrays Kerouac's alter ego Sal Paradise.
As a film, On the Road finds itself in the unfortunate position of being so faithful to its source material as to make the viewer wonder why she doesn't just read the book again, rather than watching this clipped facsimile of the real thing.
Director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera were hired by producer Francis Ford Coppola to adapt On the Road after Coppola saw their previous collaboration, the Che Cuervara motorcycle road trip drama The Motorcycle Diaries.
If you liked The Motorcycle Diaries, you will love On the Road, which is equally sincere, visually ambitious, nice to look at in a postcard kind-of-way, and humorless.
The story revolves around the friendship of Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac and Dean Moriarity/Neal Cassidy (played by a fine Garrett Hedlund). Their friendship mostly involves drinking, smoking, taking drugs, and driving around the country.
There is also a fair amount of sexual hedonism and poor treatment of women depicted in the film. One could certainly argue that this is an accurate portrayal of the times, and an adaptation of the source material, but what is filmmaker Walter Salles' excuse for not offering any sort of perspective on this behavior in 2012?
The only scene depicting women speaking to one another that Salles decided to include in the finished film involves Elizabeth Moss, Amy Adams and Kristen Stewart chatting about how best to please the men in their lives. Salles couldn't think of anything else for these three great actors to say and do?
On the Road takes pride in flaunting a certain sexual liberation, but this is Liberation as Boys' Club, with the concerns of women nothing but an afterthought, if they're even a thought at all.
In one telling scene, Sal and Dean are laughing in the living room while Kirsten Dunst's Camille, pregnant with Dean's second child, is caring for their crying infant. Dean comes into the bedroom and Camille chastises him as he prepares to go out with Sal.
Camille is predictably portrayed as a movie-typical nagging wife. The audience should be sympathetic towards her plight, but Salles always seems to want us to side with Dean, who is just an 'Aw, shucks' traveling spirit who can't help being 'quite the handful' and some sort of tragic hero.
Sexual politics aside, the film's visual details are fantastic. French cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries, Summer Hours) gives the film an improvised, lived-in feel, at once modern and specifically of the era.
The texture of the film stock, though, was distractingly current. While it's a miracle that Gautier was allowed to shoot on 35mm, rather than today's standard of digital video (a fact that likely contributed to the movie's $25 million budget), it would have been interesting for On the Road to use old-timey film stock, or at least old equipment, Good German-style, or at the very, very least, it should have been shot on black & white.
The score, though, is unfailingly incredible. Gustavo Santaolalla (best known for his music in Brokeback Mountain) gives each scene the perfect amount of sonic texture, providing structure to a formless narrative.
One gets the impression that there is a six-hour version of On the Road, featuring more of Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Elizabeth Moss, Sonia Braga, Kirsten Dunst, Terrence Howard, and the cavalcade of other actors who show up for just a few minutes of screen time. It's difficult to guess if an extended On the Road would feel more or less satisfying, but it certainly would have felt considerably more thorough.
The film, ultimately, does have a sort of charm, but it's that of a straight-laced businessman cutting loose for a few hours.
So much is made of the free-spirited devil-may-care attitude of the beat generation. But these men and women also wrote substantial works of art, the creation of which took time, and effort, and grueling hours that lacked any sort of free-spirt feeling.
On the Road is true to that generation's real spirit: Walter Salles puts in a great deal of effort and strain in order to create the impression that all of this is just off the cuff.