If you divorce the film adaptation of On the Road from the original novel by Jack Kerouac—if you knew nothing about the "Beat Generation" or that Old Bull Lee is really William S. Burroughs and you're not expecting to be moved and entertained by the story and the rich characters inhabiting it—I am willing to bet you would say to yourself, "What the hell did I just watch? Who are these pretentious, selfish men, and why should I care about their boring road trip?"
But that's not really fair, because we do know a thing or two about the Beats and of course we bring that with us into the movie theater. When Sal/Kerouac (played by Sam Riley) follows his eccentric friends around with a notebook, we know he's going to make their ramblings the stuff of legend, thus immortalizing himself and his friends, whether they deserve it or not.
All the men in director Walter Salle's movie want to get on the road, because the road is where freedom and debauchery hang out and roadside diners are where they're all so mad to do things. The action takes place from 1947 to 1951. Sal travels from New York to Denver after a failed relationship and hooks up with Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassidy (Garrett Hedlund), who is the maddest of all. Dean alternates between Camille (Kirsten Dunst) who is perpetually stuck home with the babies, and Marylou (Kristen Stewart) who gets to tag along on the road trips for as long as she agrees to stay fun and not ask for anything. Carlo Marx/Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge) just wants to talk and write poetry.
As far as dreamy portraits of early '50s Americana go, On the Road is as good as it gets. When Marylou shoplifts from a roadside gas station, our sympathy for the store owner is tempered once we notice the "No Beer Sold to Indians" sign. The road trip on screen isn't as jovial as you might remember from the novel. Dean's always getting pulled over and yelled at by the women; there's a heaviness to all the fun.
The actors are all playing the right notes, particularly Dunst and Stewart, who seem to have made a career lately out of playing put-upon women. Jose Rivera's screenplay does a good job of preserving Kerouac's prose in voiceover when it's called for without overdoing it. (There's nothing worse than a film about writers in which no one is writing.)
As long as the film invites us to consider the characters as both made-up and real at the same time, I can't help but look further to the future. At the end of the film, Sal is in pretty good shape. He's productive and he's been more responsible than Dean. That Kerouac died of alcoholism a mere 20 years later is a fact I find depressing and hard to reconcile with the hopeful younger man who wrote On the Road on a single scroll so ecstatically.
Like the book, the movie doesn't have much of a plot, which leads me to the weird conclusion that the film suffers because the source material just doesn't have the same punch on the screen as it does in print. The on-screen action is stretched thin to the point that it cracks and fizzles down to nothing, even as it takes some liberties with the story for modern audiences. (Dean Moriarty kisses Carlo Marx and actually has sex with men on screen for money, and I remember no such thing from the novel.) Maybe premarital sex and staying up all night doing a lot of benzos just isn't as shocking to us as it once was.
On the Road continues at the Wilma.