September 7, 2012



ON THE ROAD – Worth A Ticket – Kerouac’s Classic Is Beautiful and Atmospheric But Lacks Urgency
ON THE ROAD, as a novel and now as a film adaptation, is so enmeshed with the mythology of the real-life people and events it thinly fictionalizes and with the many works, both documentary and fiction, it’s inspired over the years, that it’s hard to extricate into something that exists unto itself. Walter Salles’ film, from a script by Jose Rivera, is a creditable recounting of its plot and incidents, but it doesn’t do the necessary job of giving the story its own identity.

On the Road, of course, is the story of Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s portrait of himself, played by Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy, played by Garrett Hedlund), and their cross-country wanderings in the late 1940s. Dean is pied piper for the hipsters who surround him, a figure who attracts adoration and often lust from the likes of Carlo Marx (AKA Allen Ginsburg, and played by Tom Sturridge) and his wives Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and Camille (Kirsten Dunst). His willingness to try anything and go anywhere is also an inability to stay still, and eventually he leaves everyone who cares about him. .

Salles’ and Rivera’s On the Road is generally faithful to the events of the book, but it lacks Kerouac’s larger purpose and urgency. It’s a Masterpiece Theatre version of Kerouac, a historical document, precisely photographed (by Eric Gautier) and painstakingly scored with period music. All of this is very well done, but completely lacking in spontaneity.

The enormous cast (including Viggo Morttensen, Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss and Steve Buscemi as well) is fine, and Hedlund and Stewart are better than that. (Riley is burdened by having to play a character who mostly observes.). It’s also nice to see a mainstream movie willing to be sexual in an era when an R rating usually means dirty jokes or rancid violence.

There’s a certain irony in a version of On the Road for which the most accurate description is “respectable”. It’s a lovely exhibit in a museum its protagonists would never have attended.

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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."