Sam Riley channels Jack Kerouac in Walter Salles’s adaptation of the author’s cult book, On The Road, loosely based upon Kerouac’s own jaunt across 40’s USA.
Often considered a prime example of that most tantalising of literature, the “unfilmable” novel; Salles has succeeded in bringing Kerouac’s vision of travelling excess to the screen in a manner which is both laudable for it’s visual impact, and excruciating for it’s navel-gazing pomposity.
Living in New York in the 1940’s and, having just lost his father , Sal (Sam Riley) finds himself in limbo as he struggles to put pen to paper and begin in earnest his life as a writer; spending his time with wittering junkie-poet pal Carlo (Tom Sturbridge), and waiting for inspiration to strike.
This changes with the arrival of the enigmatic Dean Moriarty, a restless, carefree sort, with a girl in every port, an in unquenchable lust for adventure; who immediately charms Sal, and instills in him that same yearning for life on the open road.
Salles’s adaptation of the source material is nothing if not visually stunning. Sal’s tramp cross-country gives Eric Gautier the perfect chance to plaster the screen in the best that the vast, beautiful country has to offer.
Garrett Hedlund’s performance as the responsibility-dodging, serial shagger, Moriarty, is spectacular; brimming with confidence and more than a hint of passive-aggressive arrogance. A realisation of a character who is
both endearing for his naive, lust-for-life energy; and terrifying for his total inability, or unwillingness, to cease his wanton trail of emotional destruction.
Riley’s Sal has much less to do, too often he’s relegated to the role of standby fag-smoker, or backing singer on some tedious bout of improv-jazz. But Riley’s performance is laudable too; dripping with tar and croaking along with a twenty-a-day drawl that sounds caked in coffee and ash.
All that visual beauty, and those performances cant’, however, save the film from it’s crushing sense of pointlessness. On The Road meanders across the screen while it’s characters swagger across the country in a state of perpetual aimlessness. Too often the piece descends into orgies of self-reverential beat-influenced poetry, or laughing, preening sessions of tiresome jazz.
For all its visual clout, and individual brilliance; On The Road will make you wish you had the same laissez-faire , drug-induced outlook as it’s characters. That way you could just drift away too.