Depending on your generational vantage point, Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel “On the Road” was the defining literary event of its generation or, as Truman Capote famously observed, an example not of writing, but “just typing.”
The literary and larger cultural argument that Kerouac’s book ignited and engaged — about formalism, narrative, morality and breaking open new ways of being and expression — is virtually nonexistent in “On the Road,” Walter Salles’s warm but strangely staid adaptation of a piece of literature that was never meant to be tamed as cinema. Like too many film versions of deeply psychological, interior books, Salles’s “On the Road” takes Kerouac’s breathless Beat Generation prose-poetry — created in a Benzedrine rush in front of a typewriter loaded with a 120-foot scroll of teletype paper — and reduces it to the conventional elements of plot, character and setting, resulting in an episodic picaresque that all but obliterates the crazy, brazen, axis-shifting energy of the original work.
In other words, Salles has reduced “On the Road” to a story, which here begins in post-World War II New York, where Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is living with his mother in Queens, trying to become a writer, when he makes the acquaintance of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). Paradise and Moriarty — the fictional doppelgangers of Kerouac and his real-life confederate Neal Cassady — embark on a series of road trips during which they imbibe copious amounts of liquor, weed and hard-bop jazz, meet a colorful series of visionaries and reprobates and, in Cassady’s case, attract and dump a succession of long-suffering female companions.
Fans of Kerouac’s novel will recognize the cardinal characters and sequences from the book, including William S. Burroughs (played in one of the film’s best performances by Viggo Mortensen), his wife Joan Vollmer (Amy Adams), and Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge), who, like so many women in “On the Road,” comes under the erotic sway of Cassady only to have his heart discarded like a crushed cigarette butt.
Hedlund does a competently convincing job of embodying his character’s careless seductiveness, which turns from simmering to ice-cold in the blink of a long-lashed eye. But Salles’s production is too careful, too obediently within-the-lines to convey not just the combustible push-and-pull between Cassady and Kerouac, but also the experimentation of the work that defined and memorialized their friendship.
To read “On the Road” is to inhale love, transgression, consciousness and America itself in one greedy gulp. To watch “On the Road” is to see people do things against backdrops that can look only puny in comparison to the expanse of one’s own imagination. (The hemmed-in feeling of “On the Road” is all the more dismaying considering Salles’s best-known film, the exhilarating 2004 drama “The Motorcycle Diaries.”)
As Marylou, the teenager Cassady/Moriarty has just married when he meets Sal, Kristen Stewart never manages to look like a creature of the ’50s; something in her face and physical bearing seems rooted in the present century. For her part, Kirsten Dunst is far more persuasive as Camille (a.k.a. Carolyn Cassady), who resembles a “Vertigo”-era Barbara Bel Geddes in her toughness and vulnerability.
The best part of “On the Road” is Salles’s recognition and narrative empowerment of women who, in real life and in Kerouac’s retelling, were subject to untold cruelty and misogyny that went largely unnoticed in subsequent mythologizing of the Beat Generation. This version of “On the Road” may not sing or soar, but it makes some crucial adjustments to a worldview that was simultaneously liberated and fatally blinkered.
R. At Landmark E Street Cinema. Contains strong sexual content, drug use and profanity. 125 minutes.