An Uneventful Journey, by David Bax
Perhaps I should start this review by stating that I’ve never found a connection with the whole Beat thing. Just like the whole hippie thing, it’s a form of counterculture that doesn’t appeal to me. I was always drawn to the whole punk thing. Instead of finding ways to depart and detach from society, I wanted to confront it as angrily as possible. But my lack of interest in the source material isn’t the reason I didn’t enjoy Walter Salles’ On the Road. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if fans of Jack Kerouac’s famed novel are equally or more disappointed with it.
As far as one exists, the plot concerns the friendship between Kerouac surrogate Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Neal Cassady surrogate Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). They and a rotating crew of fellow wanderers spend time traveling, not traveling, writing, not writing and getting high.
Most of the fun – or at least the potential fun – is in the casting. In addition to Riley and Hedlund, Salles has corralled Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi and Terrence Howard. Of that impressive list, though, only Hedlund and perhaps Mortensen manage to manage to establish a characterization strong enough to overcome Salles’ oppressive and literalistic direction. For a film without a real story, there’s a surprising and unfortunate feeling that we are being marched from each point to the next with a nearly joyless determination.
Also falling victim to Salles’ trudgery is the skilled work of cinematographer Eric Gautier, who has been relied upon by such French masters as Olivier Assayas and Patrice Chéreau. Gautier takes the characters’ directionless cues and allows subtle, intuitive changes in light to tell us when it’s time to move on. Like Sal, at sea in his young life but taking the exhaustive mental notes that will lead to the novel itself, Gautier appears to let his camera drift but always manages to catch exactly what you need to see.
If only Salles, a sentimental filmmaker even at his best, had taken the formalist path hinted at by his director of photography. Instead of capturing the poetry of transience, instead of inspiring us the way the road inspired Kerouac, he turns On the Road into a dry account of chronological events, as if he were adapting a blog and not a celebrated novel.
While I started by saying that Kerouac’s milieu finds little purchase in my mental field, I would absolutely recommend that you read On the Road instead of watching On the Road. Hell, read almost any book, for that matter.
Looks like we’re in a similar boat — I read ON THE ROAD with pretty high expectations (after everyone claiming it changed their life). Man oh man was I disappointed. It wasn’t that I just didn’t like the book, I actively disliked it.
Seeing the trailer for it, I had high hopes for it (considering the source material). I was hoping that someone who actually try to make the story compelling, or even dramatic. Even though I’m a fan of Gautier’s work, I might just sit this one out.
To the above person, Alex:
“I was hoping that someone who actually try to make the story compelling, or even dramatic.”
I understand why someone might not like “On the Road.” It’s essentially a semi-autobiographical travelogue, and if someone is expecting a more conventionally structured story, I could see why it would disappoint; If you don’t like travel writing, you probably won’t like this book.
But saying the book lacks drama is wrong. I’ve read it twice and I can safely say there is a lot of conflict and tension in the book’s manifold stories. Dean Moriarty’s character has a tangible, dramatic arc: he goes from a keenly alert and newly married young man to a three times divorced, drug addled, almost broken person. The story is, among much else, about how Dean’s chaotic lifestyle leads him nowhere, while Sal’s more conservative approach (wanting to grow old with a single woman, wanting to finish his education, wanting to write books, etc) leads him to a healthier, more productive and peaceful life.
Another example: Sal’s relationship with Terry is filled with inner conflict for the protagonist. He is a privileged white kid that idealizes America’s marginalized groups, thinking they’re are more “real,” as kids would say these days. He is completely disillusioned of this notion when he says how poor mexicans actually live.
And then there are the countless confrontations the protagonists have with the police.
And then the scene in the diner where Sal and Dean fight for the first time.
You might not think the book is compelling, but you can’t say that it’s without drama. Based on your post, It seems likely that you read the first two chapters and nothing else.
To David Bax:
Man, this movie season is not shaping up for me. First “The Hobbit” is underwhelming (although I still enjoyed it) and now “On the Road” looks like it might end up the same way.
One question though: is the dynamic between Sal and Dean worthwhile at all? I’ve read that it is, but I’m curious about your opinion.
I’ll still probably see it either way, though.
Nice commentary and thanks for the reply — I’ve noticed the two arcs that Dean and Sal have, but I suppose my reaction was quite different. I did make it through the entire book and not just the first two chapters.
There’s no way I could have read the book without the buzz behind the book influencing it in some way. Hearing that it changed peoples’ lives (and etc…) raise my expectations much higher than they would have been otherwise. I suppose that my objection is that the dramatic arcs of Sal and Dean feel completely beside the point — Dean is championed throughout the book (even in the ending), and any life led by Sal that isn’t on the road is left out of the story almost completely (aside from a few mentions of life in the war and publishing some material).
For me, at least, the characters never really changed. Dean was a rebellious, free spirit, and he remained that way — he never really received a comeuppance. Sal always admired Dean (and even though he’s the protagonist here, he is by far the main character of the story), and even when Dean strands him in Mexico, he seems to still love him (though maybe not as much).
The conflict with the cops never really felt dramatic to me: just more of the two getting their “kicks.” My experience with the book is likely tainted by the failed expectations and the fact that I largely hated the characters. Either way, the movie trailers at least looked pretty, so I was hoping for a nice rendition of it!