Truman Capote legendarily dismissed Jack Kerouac’s influential roman à clef “On the Road” with, “That’s not writing; it’s typing.”
Capote’s insult might have been referencing the legend that Kerouac banged out a first draft while hopped up on speed and feeding his typewriter with one gigantic roll of butcher paper, but Capote could also have referred to the stripped-down, descriptive prose of the book, which chugs along with the cool, spare poetry of jazz.
But the beat of the Beats is sadly lacking in the movie version of “On the Road,” a handsomely mounted adaptation of Kerouac’s book that never feels like it’s heading anywhere in particular.
While the meandering of the novel was sort of the point, director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera (who previously collaborated on another road-picture epic, “The Motorcycle Diaries”) capture all of the style but none of the substance of this world — the movie is less a celebration of Jack Kerouac, writer, than it is of Jack Kerouac, posthumous khaki model for the Gap.
Of course, because “On the Road” is so very autobiographical, the act of turning into a film by necessity becomes the act of making a docudrama about the Beat Generation, with all the names changed. And doing that puts this movie up against a whole canon of Beat cinema, from movies they made themselves (“Pull My Daisy”) to scads of documentaries to Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s exceptional, underseen “Howl,” in which James Franco portrays Allen Ginsberg while the film visualizes Ginsberg’s legendary, rule-breaking poem.
Any adaptation of "On the Road" — and any evocation of this literary movement — has to contend with all of that baggage. Salles and Rivera made “Motorcycle Diaries” one of the great contemporary road-trip movies, no matter what you think about the eventual life and activities of Che Guevara, but with “On the Road,” the results will leave Kerouac fans cold while leaving the uninitiated wondering what all the fuss is about.
Our Kerouac surrogate here is Sal Paradise (Sam Riley, “Control”), living in post-World War II New York City and hungry to experience life and to get it all down on paper. The real focal point of the story is the restless, charismatic and all-consuming Dean Moriarity (Garrett Hedlund), Kerouac’s fictionalized version of Neal Cassady.
Dean may lack the literary gifts of others in his circle, but his bottomless appetite for life and escapades fuel not only Sal’s imagination but also their friend Carlo (Tom Sturridge, channeling Ginsberg). It’s to the film’s credit that they don’t shy away from portraying the physical relationship between gay Carlo and the otherwise straight Dean.
Their hedonism and enthusiasms too large to be contained by Manhattan, our characters find themselves traveling back and forth across the United States in those enormous cars that used to be our national birthright. Dean hooks up with young Marylou (Kristen Stewart) before abandoning her and attempting to settle down with Camille (Kirsten Dunst).
New friends are made, speeding tickets are negotiated, booze is swilled and drugs are ingested. But none of this ever seems like it’s adding up to anything; the film doesn’t even succeed in making the point that none of this was supposed to go anywhere. It just goes, and goes, and goes.
The real Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs (played here by Viggo Mortensen as “Old Bull Lee”) lived long enough to become vivid figures in their own right in documentaries and performances of their work, so portraying them onscreen is no easy feat. Kudos to Sturridge and Mortensen, then, for avoiding caricature.
Riley gets stuck with the thankless audience-eyes-and-ears role (when he’s not furiously typing away), and he gets as much out of the role as anyone could. Stewart also gets little to play, but doesn’t make any missteps along the way; ultimately, it’s the sort of role where it’s her agreeing to do it (a minor role that requires nudity) more than her actual performance that merits praise.
If anyone shines in all this, it’s Hedlund, taking this golden god of the page and making him recognizably charismatic and engaging. The book’s Dean Moriarity writes a big check for any actor to cash, but Hedlund succeeds.
Ultimately, though, it’s an impressive performance in the service of a film that never quite nails its itinerary. Audiences may find reliving their own travel experiences during “On the Road,” enjoying the pretty scenery between the occasional nap and restroom break.