Under the guidance of director Walter Salles, Jack Kerouac’s monumental beatnik novel “On the Road” finally comes to the screen after spending decades in development. Capturing the transience of youth and search for meaning that defined a generation of Americans coming of age in the mid-20th century, the film takes its time struggling to straddle the line between nostalgic period piece and refreshing meditation on growing up.
Aspiring writers Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) and Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Kerouac’s autobiographical self, first meet Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and his teenaged wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart) in New York City in the late 1940s. Carlo and Sal are immediately infatuated with Dean’s voracious appetite for life and easygoing, almost careless, manner, and the trio become fast friends, spending their days and nights drinking, smoking, dancing, having sex, doing drugs and waxing philosophical about everything from love to literature. So when Dean and Marylou decide to return to Denver, Carlo and Sal follow.
Infected with Dean’s wanderlust, Sal begins a meandering journey back and forth across the country. Although Dean’s companionship throughout the next several years is punctuated by half-hearted attempts at settling down, he maintains a constant presence and influence in Sal’s life, as evidenced by an increasing tendency toward recklessness. Taking note of the people he meets and the experiences they share during his travels, Sal finally overcomes his writer’s block and produces a manuscript.
Riley, Hedlund and Stewart are perfectly adequate as the film’s central characters, but it’s often the cameo roles of the people whose lives intersect so briefly with theirs who are the most memorable. Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams play an eccentric couple who accommodate the trio as they pass through the South, while Steve Buscemi briefly appears as a lonely man seeking companionship.
At over two hours long, Sal and Dean’s unfettered determination to feel alive via their nomadic lifestyle becomes tiresome, affecting the audience long before the characters. The cinematography of the wide-open country is gorgeous, but gradually loses its sheen as one begins to wish that they could just stay in one place long enough to accomplish something—a relationship in Dean’s case, and a piece of writing for Sal.
The tone sometimes flip flops between self-discovery and coming of age to a study in self-absorption, as Sal and Dean tend to operate with little regard to the consequences of their actions. But at the same time, perhaps this is what gives Kerouac’s story such longevity. Youthful is as youthful does, and the kind of reckless abandon that “On the Road” depicts (some might even call it irresponsibility) still feels fresh and relatable.
In the end, we, like Kerouac, want to find meaning in all that we’re seeing, but all too often it seems to hover just beyond the frame.