I’m not sure, but maybe, just maybe, this is one of the worst films ever made. Walter Salles’ interpretation of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ is much more like a porno with various scenes of drug taking thrown in than anything close to good storytelling. It begins by trying to be way, way too cool, with both Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund’s accents (who play Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty respectively, and along with Kristen Stewart form the story’s main menage a trois) being heavily affected and theatrical, as if they’ve been instructed to make love to themselves while they talk, and several examples of shaky cam overuse. The characters all seem to be lacking any of the innate backstage fear of humanity, they all love one another immediately and with large degrees of pretentious self gratuity.
The story meanders aimlessly, as do the characters – screwing one another vicariously and partaking in all sorts of drug aided threesome activities. To the point where there is no real story, where the audience may find themselves so disaffected by the silhouettes of characters as to lose any real interest in what happens to them, and perhaps wonder why anyone would want anything to do with them in the first place. Then, it simply becomes a parade of pointlessness interspersed with erotica in order to keep the audience’s attention, which is the lowest form of filmmaking. It was the wrong director for this film. The Brazilian director’s most famous film prior to this was ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ (04), telling the story of a young Che Guevara as he travelled around South America on a beat up old motorcycle with his friend, trying to eventually reach a leper colony to gain medical experience. Here, he is interpreting the most defining work of the ‘beat generation’ of the post war period, a work that is autobiographical (Sal Paradise is Jack Kerouac) and focused on one man and his friend’s search for meaning and definition, travelling across America and flying in the face of conventional culture as they did so. As a culture of fear spread across America in the wake of the cold war, this search for freedom and identity versus traditional American family values resonated and the work became a landmark identifier for a generation, eventually transmogrifying into the anti-military counter culture of the hippie revolution in the 1960s.
One can imagine Walter Salles growing up as a student, a ubiquitous poster of Che Guevara on his wall, experimenting with pot and romanticising about the 50s. However, he has pretty much nothing in common with the characters he loves so much. He comes from money, lots of money, in fact his father was the head of one of the most powerful banks in the whole of South America. He has stated he spent five years researching this film. He really has to elaborate on that. It sounds like nonsense, but he did actually travel the same route as Paradise does in the novel, and made a documentary about it along the way. However, Kerouac and his pals were completely flat out broke, living on the edge, clueless about how their lives would find meaning and value, and indeed how they would even like them to turn out. Salles had no financial worries, had a very clear idea of what he was trying to achieve, and was already a success in his field. His trip becomes then a nice holiday, a completely, fundamentally different experience from Kerouac and co. This difference transfers directly into the film and its contrast with the novel.
They also cast the wrong men for the lead roles. Kristen Stewart fits her role perfectly (no comment on why that might be) and the film is successful in delivering a sense of sexual frisson throughout, together with scenes that the film will be remembered for, and that are guaranteed to induce some involuntary displays of discomfort/awkwardness in cinema audiences. Do not go and see this with family. Though, if you’re female, watching it with two males for company might be interesting…
It’s also painfully long, 124 mins, but it feels more like four hours.
‘Can I watch you guys screw?’ Kristen Stewart/MaryLou