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.