On the Road (2012) Walter Salles

Production Budget: $25 million

Gross so far: $8 million

Again, jumping the gun a bit but will gladly change the review if anything major changes.

We have a rarity on the blog. Normally on these adaptations I say „I’ve never read X so I’ll have to judge the movie on its own.“ But this time I’ve actually read On the Road and of the Beat in general. So much so one of my first trips was to New York to Greenwich Village where the Beat Generation started. It was like an extremely dorky pilgrimage  I had some expectations for this movie going in mainly because of the director. Walter Salles directed another road novel called The Motorcycle Diaries which was a journal chronicling one of Ernesto Guevara’s trips with his friend. Salles did a great job of romanticizing the journey and also the personal story of a friendship on its last legs. When it comes to On the Road, I think something got lost in translation.

On the Road is based on the book of the same name. It was a semi-biography by Jack Kerouac and it is about struggling writer Sal Paradise. Sal meets a free spirited person named Dean Moriarty and they go on a series of journeys across the country.

I’m sure you probably think that now I have a source material I recognize I will pick apart how the movie’s plot is so different from the book. To be very honest, despite reading On the Road quite a few times, I actually had to refresh prior to seeing the movie. Maybe that can be attributed to my Swiss cheese memory or maybe it is some cue to bad writing. I prefer to think that I don’t remember the exact specifics to the plot because that doesn’t matter so much as the themes and the characters.

Much of On the Road was a rejection of ideas and culture of the time. The American Dream was the nuclear family with a wife and kids and you were firmly planted in one city with a stable job. Sal was a restless and directionless every man who gets seduced by Dean’s spirit of adventure and his counter culture attitude. Roots? Real happiness is the open road and the beauty of the country. Family? Careers? Chains that tie you down. Meet friends wherever you go and have parties with lots of sex, booze, and drugs. Dean seems like the best friend you could ever have and the life is exciting. But during the course of the book Sal experiences the disillusionment of that ideal and the illusion finally wears off of Dean. Dean is a free spirit, but that comes at the cost of being a selfish asshole who is not responsible to anyone or anything. So while I don’t remember the plot specifics of who went where and did what, it is memorable (at least for me) for other reasons. It is a coming of age story that while is set in the 50’s, still speaks to people today.

All that goes into why I think something got lost in translation by Brazilian director Salles. Because stuff happens in the movie that happens in the book, but to the audience that is all it is. Stuff. We never get that context which explains why it is important and in the story. One scene that is a great example is when Sal has about a five minute scene when Sal meets the immigrant woman Terry (Alice Braga). In the movie you see Sal meet Terry, he goes to stay with her on a work camp near a cotton field, they fuck, and they go their separate ways. Now while most men won’t object to seeing Alice Braga’s boobs, they may be wondering why this is in the movie. After all, Terry never shows up in the rest of the movie and she is never mentioned again after Sal leaves. And you don’t see that Terry made any lasting impression on Sal or that she taught him any lessons in life. In the book, she represents a more stable life for Sal. They love each other, but by entering into this relationship Sal is dedicating himself to a kind of pre-made family (Terry has a child already) and a daily grind in the cotton field. Sal is not ready for that kind of commitment, gets restless, and leaves her citing a weak excuse.

Many reviews have pointed to the meandering nature as a negative and I think it is for the purpose I described. Take another scene where Sal and Dean go to a nightclub where they meet jazz saxophone player Walter (played by Terrence Howard). They go, they hear some jazz, they have some small talk with Walter, and that’s it. Once again, you are left wondering why the hell that is in there. Jazz was big in On the Road because, again, it was counter culture. Sure there was jazz, but it was weak ass watered down Benny Goodman/Tommy Dorsey crap. Yeah, I just gave a 60 year burn to Tommy Dorsey. What? Real jazz was seen as pure inspiration and had a little rebel rock and roll spirit to it. Our characters also hung out with and sometimes made love to people of color which was also taboo at the time. So, in the context of the book you have our characters hearing this sexy and cool music and breaking with many social conventions. In the movie we have a pointless scene where Sal and Dean smoke weed with Terrence Howard. It is like Walter Salles was working from a checklist of plot points from the book without really getting what it means.

I also think that applies to the cinematography; specifically to the road shots of America. This is a story that romanticizes travel but I found much of the shots of America to be lazy. Don’t worry, I’ll explain. Do you know when other movies have to lazily establish where in the world you are so they show an obvious landmark? Like, if you are shooting in Brazil, you will show that gigantic Jesus statue. Or if you are establishing London you will do Big Ben or some such crap. It is kind of the same thing here and I blame it on the fact Salles is obviously not familiar with the US. The characters are going to San Francisco? Well, show the Golden Gate bridge! The quality is seriously contrasted when the characters go to Mexico. Salles is not only Brazilian but is familiar with Central and South America due to The Motorcycle Diaries. So the shots of Mexico are gorgeous without needing landmarks. We see the beautiful desert and the mountains and valleys. Salles found choice locations in places as diverse as Arizona, Argentina, and Chile. But then our characters go back to New York and lets just go to a shot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Yawn.

So lets move on to the acting. Sam Riley is unremarkable as Sal Paradise but partially I think that is due to the character being mostly an observer to the story. Garrett Hedlund gives a break out performance as Dean. He is both very charismatic and very vulnerable when the scene demands it. Kristen Stewart was also heavily billed in this movie probably due to Twilight. Does this make me forget her awful acting in Twilight? Short answer no. You can tell she is trying to break out of that Twilight mold with a heavily sexualized role, but when you have to see her try to act up to the other people in the movie you want her to go away and leave the acting to the big boys.

The supporting cast is star studded as I gave a few names earlier but as I mentioned, most of them are nothing roles. The only people that leave any impression are Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst. Dunst does so much with her limited and (lets face it) shitty role she embarrasses Stewart by contrast. I could list all the other guest stars but it’s not worth it.

Now I’ve been criticizing for most of this review but in the end, On the Road is a mixed bag. The quality of most of the movie is prone to bipolar swings. At times the movie is beautiful and at others it is lazy and lackluster. At times the characters have some genuine touching moments, and at others they are unlikable one dimensional asses only out for sex and drugs. At times, you get a feeling of the period and the characters, and more often than not you feel like you are getting pointless scenes with unremarkable characters. At times you feel like the themes are coming through, and at others the movie seems like a meandering mess. This isn’t a bad movie, but it is a disappointment. On the surface Salles seemed like the perfect director, but in reality the movie needed someone to grasp the spirit of the text, and not someone who sticks too literally to the text.  

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