On the Road Review: Sex, Drugs, and a Film that Never Sparkles
I have funny feelings towards the new film adaptation of On The Road that screened at Cannes this week; feelings which you're not supposed to experience towards a film, as an objective reviewer using his judgment and mental faculties to assess something. Here's the thing: I feel sorry for On The Road. It's a feeling of pity arising from many things that haven't gone quite right, from the weight of expectations that a film so slight could never hope to fulfil, from a cast who are all clearly trying their utmost to make this work. But the whole thing never takes; there's something missing -- that thing is a spark of madness, a bit of oomph or flair, that would give it the necessary crackle and energy to draw us in. I think this couldn't have been predicted; it either happens or it doesn't, and it resoundingly doesn't in this tedious movie whose flailing attempts to rise above its weaknesses are a rather sorry sight.
Partly this is due to the source material: On The Road, the novel, whatever you may think of its literary qualities, is essentially a collection of stitched-together moments. As I recall, there's a lot of "and then we left Reno, and headed to Delaware" going on in the novel, which in this film translates into endless scenes of the cast driving down yet another road. The transitions between scenes are scenes themselves, which makes the film feel like a drawn-out compendium. In the last hour, especially, you keep waiting for it to end -- but it doesn't: it goes on, and on, presenting an umpteenth reunion of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garret Hedlund), yet another car journey along a snowy or dusty road, one last scene in a jazz bar.The film, mirroring its characters in a touching act of deference, is entirely directionless.
Do we need to go over the story? I mean, not story so much as things vaguely occurring in sequence. We've all read the book, right? Oh go on then: Sal Paradise, a young writer of some promise, meets Dean Moriarty, a devil-may-care fella who embodies the 'Beat' spirit, being unattached to anything or anyone, a free soul obsessed with living, with women and music, with burning brightly etc., etc. You get the idea. Sal sets off with Dean and his on-off girlfriend, the 16-year-old Marylou (Kristen Stewart), with both of whom he shares a sexual tension of sorts. Their adventures bring them into contact with other people including the poet Carlo (Tom Sturridge, showing up everybody else's acting) and Dean's other girlfriend, the uptight and melancholy Camille (Kirsten Dunst). They meet some other people too. As they proceed, they experiment sexually, as well as drink and carouse and travel, all of which is shown here because it's in the book.
The problem, as I intimated above, is that it never takes off. We understand that these people are having fun or are tormented because we're essentially told that that's the case, but we don't see real emotions on the screen. Dean Moriarty is said to be a wild, untameable beast in the narration, and certainly the film shows him having sex with various people and not tying himself down, and stealing cars -- but does Garret Hedlund's performance embody these aspects of Moriarty as it should? Not really. He tries his best, as does everyone here, but he is just too clean, too pretty and nice, too easy-going for this role. Hedlund has a scene where he recounts an orgy he had with a guy and two girls at one point, in a scene intended to show his character in all his unalloyed hedonism but also reveal that he recognizes the emptiness of his existence; Hedlund dutifully utters the anatomical words he is required to use, but they don't shock or titillate or fill you with admiration; it is just another story. Likewise Kristen Stewart acts her part as well as she can -- which is very well indeed -- but her Marylou somehow never comes into being in front of our eyes. You get the sense of actors who haven't been directed properly. The cast are beautiful, and there's a pleasing amount of nudity and sexual jumping around, but where's the joy or the boundary-pushing?
I think the problem may also be that the central story is now somewhat old hat: in the 50s I can understand that it was a different thing to take time out as a young adult, to refuse to settle down and go "find yourself," take drugs and have sex with people, but -- well, don't we all do that these days? The years between university and gainful employment seem increasingly to be a period of rumination for many people, of figuring things out. Travelling is not as exotic as it once was. Crucially, too, I think the educated white classes in particular recognize their privilege and may be anxious not to lament their misfortune in not living the "real" life of people out on the streets, since this smacks of cultural tourism and is patronizing. In other words, the story may not have the ring of the new that it once held.
What remains is a series of beautiful locations -- endless locations -- filmed beautifully; but this picture postcard prettiness just serves to emphasise the flatness of the film overall, and its inability to convey the excitement of its central adventure.