If you didn’t know that Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road was a seminal influence on postwar America, that it helped define a generation and even determined the course of significant aspects of modern pop culture, you would never, ever guess it from this lifeless, soulless, pointless adaptation.
Director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera bizarrely strip all cultural and historical context from a tale that desperately needs it today, 65 years after it is set — without that, their film looks like nothing so much as a random assemblage of man-boy exploits as self-indulgent layabouts smoke pot, listen to jazz, and write poetry. Just what the hell is wannabe writer — and stand-in for the author — Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) rebelling against? In what way is the world failing to meet his expectations? What is it about his new friend Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) that makes him, in Sal’s eyes, “holy”? We haven’t got a clue.
Sal and Dean, as they are presented here, are no different — no different — than Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, the Hangover guys, or Harold and Kumar, except perhaps for their gorgeous period setting. (The film looks amazing. The same cannot be said for the content.) If we’re meant to take it that Kerouac set the stage for stoner bromances, no thank you. Sal and Dean talk about how they might get around to talking about stuff without ever actually getting around to saying anything of substance. In fact, perhaps the only moment consisting of something close to an authentic philosophical take on the world — as crass as it may be — comes from Amy Adams’ kooky rural Louisiana housewife, who explains to Elisabeth Moss and Kristen Stewart, the ill-treated toys of the men here, that there’s a certain necessity in giving men oral sex..
The narrative is nothing but Sal chasing Dean (and once or twice Dean chasing Sal) around the country — between Denver and San Francisco and New York and New Orleans — doing odd jobs and being miserable. Sometimes Sal is driven to scribble things on paper, once so inspired that he runs out of paper and has to resort to using newspaper, and even wears pencils down to stubs, but what he’s writing is left a mystery. (The suggestion is that he’s writing the very story we see on-screen, but as already noted, we get no indication as to why this story is worth telling.) It’s as if the entire film is made up of all the bits in between the interesting bits (which have been cut out). It’s a shameful waste of a fantastic cast, which also features Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, and Alice Braga.
Why did this story hit like a ton of cultural bricks in the 1950s? Why is it still important today? This On the Road has no insight and no hindsight.