On the Road (IFC Films/Sundance Selects, R)

film on-the-road_75While the movie is about as good as it could have possibly gotten under the circumstances, here it is perhaps just mediocre at best.

 

 

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It’s hard to imagine the film version of Jack Kerouac’s beloved novel On the Road not being a total clusterfuck: the novel’s too beloved, and it has been around for so long, that it seems like it would be basically impossible to do it anything approaching justice. Worse still is when you find out the film was made by director Walter Salles and writer Jose Rivera, the team behind 2004’s rather overrated movie The Motorcycle Diaries, which was surely uncoincidentally also based on a beloved book about a road trip (though that one was nonfiction, and written by Che Guevara).

As it happens, the new film version of On the Road manages to avoid some of the more obvious pitfalls one would expect this adaptation to face, and at its best, it even shows the spirit of the book. But it doesn’t quite always work on the whole; that is to say, while the movie On the Road is about as good as it could have possibly gotten under the circumstances, “as good as it could have gotten” here is perhaps just mediocre at best.

The film is mostly helped by an interesting cast, including Sam Riley (who so convincingly played Ian Curtis in 2007’s Control) as Kerouac stand-in Sal Paradise, plus reliable, recognizable names in smaller roles, such as Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Elizabeth Moss, and Viggo Mortensen. But one of the film’s biggest faults is Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty. Moriarty is one of the more memorable characters in modern American literature; as such, it would have been hard to cast the role credibly, as too many people have too much mental stake in what the character should look and act like. Hedlund doesn’t completely blow it, and, like the rest of the movie, even manages to turn in a memorable scene every now and then, but both in his looks and a lot of his actions, he comes off kind of like a typical jock alpha male dickhead. Moriarty is perhaps not the most likeable character by design, but it doesn’t seem quite right to make him as generically beefy and not terribly charismatic as Hedlund is.

And really, while the film is successful in sticking to the plot points of the book, the book was never really about anything as banal as plot points in the first place: It’s about the feeling of the open road, of wild friends, of regret and melancholy, of being alive. The movie finds these notes sometimes—but are you really willing to settle for a film that is merely watchable, when the novel it is based on is a classic? | Pete Timmermann

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