Sal Paradise overcomes writer’s block with his cross-country road trips and sensual encounters in this visually appealing chain of thought. Allison Brooks tags along.
Photo courtesy of SCADMuch like Jack Kerouac’s acclaimed Beat Generation novel, director Walter Salles’ On The Road is a cast of characters rather than a story. When iconic Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) befriends the struggling young writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) in New York, circa 1947, Sal immediately feels a pull towards Dean’s rebellious, restless nature. The two seek cross-country adventure with Dean’s new bride, 16-year-old Marylou (Kristen Stewart). The three dabble in drugs, sex, jazz and theft at stops all along the winding road. Sal, Dean and Marylou encounter a handful of colorful, yet unrealized, characters on their road trips, each one shaping their journey, including scene-stealing Jane (Amy Adams), uptight Galatea (Elizabeth Moss), jazz musician Walter (Terrence Howard) and aging junkie Bull (Viggo Mortensen)—whose character deserves to be fleshed out more fully. When the camera focuses on Carlo (Tom Sturridge) and Camille (Kirsten Dunst), we are able to explore these characters’ inner struggles and begin to care for them, at least a little, even in the absence of any overarching narrative structure. Despite the stream-of-consciousness flow of the story, the film itself is a visual pleasure, if at times gratuitous. Salles captures the beauty of America in the late 1940s, taking us from New York City to Denver to New Orleans to Mexico City and back again. As the credits rolled and Trustees Theater emptied, I overheard some not so flattering comments. One gentleman, who is clearly in the film business, declared that the film would have been great if it were only 40 minutes long and had the impact of the last scene carried throughout, which finally delivered some emotional payoff. Another guest mimicked his brains being blown out. The talented cast did their best with the material they were given, but Salles ultimately fails to capture the zeitgeist that Kerouac did in his novel, relying instead on montages of sex and drugs and meanderings to give heft to his characters' awakenings. The real star of On the Road is a midcentury American landscape that no longer exists.