Review originally published September 7, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
I don't do this often, but when it comes to the topic of the Beat writers, I feel like I have a tiny bit of cred. I attended the 1994 NYU "Beat Conference" and saw Gregory Corso, Tuli Kupfenberg, Hunter Thompson, Cecil Taylor and William Burroughs (via telephone) speak. A friend of mine lived in a tiny studio above Judson Memorial Church. Another friend of mine had sex on Allen Ginsberg's piano. So when I say that these characters have a special place in my heart, know that it is the place aligned with the first whiffs of youth and freedom. And "On the Road," the new film by Walter Salles, brought it all back home.
"They're making a movie of 'On The Road?' Oh, that'll be awful." That's what I said in the mid 1990s when Francis Ford Coppola almost did it. It probably would have been awful then - a big, fat, pretentious mess of swirly photography and muted sex. Salles' film is not that. This "On the Road" is much like the book: mundane, repetitive, desultory and, if you are the type who feels every story has to spell out its purpose in plain prose, pointless. It's about a bunch of people who hang out, talk, get rowdy, screw, drink, smoke, say pretentious things and write. Since Jack Kerouac's jazzy attitude and freeform style were at the forefront of a groundbreaking movement the novel has taken on mythic proportions. Heck, the original "scroll" it was typed on (so Kerouac could stay in a groove and not switch out sheets of paper) is currently under glass at the main branch of the New York Public Library. As is a Gutenberg Bible. Dig?
"On the Road" drops you in the deep end and hopes you can fend for yourself. If you have no context of what post-war nonconformists were up against, well, then hopefully you'll get it by osmosis. Sam Riley's Sal Paradise (the Kerouac stand-in) is the quiet observer, but he can go wild on the benzedrine and group sex from time to time, too. Tom Sturridge's Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) is earnest, frank, soulful and filled with longing. All eyes, though, are on Garrett Hedlund's Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady).
Also check out: 'On The Road' Stars Talk About Director's 'Devotion'
Dean Moriarty is one of the most charismatic figures in all of literature, so Hedlund has a near-impossible task. He certainly shows more range than in, say, "Tron Legacy," but the fact that he isn't an atom bomb of beauty, grace and charm is, I think, key to this film. Even though the Beats were expert at perpetuating their own PR (so much of their work is about how great they all are) they were, you know, just guys. Young guys who thought they knew a lot more about life than they actually did. (That is, except for the spaced-out sage William Burroughs, played for marvelous laughs in quick scenes by Viggo Mortensen).
Hedlund's normalcy takes the myth of "On the Road" down a peg. The film isn't a whirlwind of handsome hepcats living a jazz lifestyle in photogenic locations. That's a Ralph Lauren catalogue, not a film. When we watch Hedlund become an irresistible sex object to Kristen Stewart, Kristen Dunst, Tom Sturridge, Steve Buscemi and this one brunette who puts uppers in her tea it suddenly becomes about a real person, not just an archetype. Considering that, by conventional standards, there's virtually no plot in this film (seriously, they drive, they get nude, they steal bread, once in a while they yell at one another) it's through this repetition that, eventually, an understanding of their internal strife connects with you as if by ritual chanting.
This film ain't for everyone. My "consumer reports" side is urging me to say, again, nothing really happens in the movie. Even the "adventures" aren't all that shocking. At one point they get a ticket. In Mexico, Sal get's the sh*ts. To a generation raised on "The Hangover Part 2," this may be one big snore. I think, however, that this is the only way to make this movie. To spice it up with false conflict would be an affront and to overplay the jazz angle and to go for a dreamlike experimental aesthetic would lead to nothing but rolled eyes. No, this is a plainspoken and restrained filmmaker's vision, a respectful, tuned-in approach to "On the Road," and the right way to represent what we see when we, like Sal Paradise, think of Dean Moriarty.