Depending on your generational vantage point, Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel "On the Road" was the defining literary event of its generation or, as Truman Capote famously observed, "just typing."
The literary and larger cultural argument that Kerouac's book ignited about formalism, narrative, morality and breaking open new ways of expression is virtually nonexistent in "On the Road," Walter Salles' warm but strangely staid adaptation of a piece of literature that was never meant to be tamed as cinema.
Salles' "On the Road" takes Kerouac's breathless Beat Generation prose- poetry created in a Benzedrine rush in front of a typewriter loaded with a 120-foot scroll of teletype paper and reduces it to the conventional elements of plot, character and setting, resulting in an episodic picaresque that all but obliterates the crazy, brazen, axis-shifting energy of the original work.
The story here begins in post-World War II New York, where Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is living with his mother in Queens, trying to become a writer, when he makes the acquaintance of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). Paradise and Moriarty the fictional doppelgangers of Kerouac and his confederate Neal Cassady embark on a series of road trips during which they imbibe copious amounts of liquor, weed and hard-bop jazz, meet a colorful series of visionaries and reprobates and, in Cassady's case, attract and dump a succession of female companions.
Fans of Kerouac's novel will recognize the cardinal characters and sequences from the book, including William S. Burroughs (played in one of the film's best performances by Viggo Mortensen), his wife, Joan Vollmer (Amy Adams), and Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge), who, like many women in "On the Road," comes under the erotic sway of Cassady only to have his heart discarded like a crushed cigarette butt.
To read "On the Road" is to inhale love, transgression, consciousness and America itself in one greedy gulp. To watch "On the Road" is to see people do things against backdrops that look puny in comparison with the expanse of one's own imagination.
Salles' production is too careful to convey not just the combustible push-and-pull between Cassady and Kerouac, but the experimentation of the work that defined and memorialized their friendship.
(The hemmed-in feeling of "On the Road" is all the more dismaying considering Salles' best-known film, the exhilarating 2004 drama "The Motorcycle Diaries.") As Marylou, the teenager Cassady/Moriarty has just married when he meets Sal, Kristen Stewart never manages to look like a creature of the '50s; something in her physical bearing seems rooted in the present. Kirsten Dunst is far more persuasive as Camille (a.k.a. Carolyn Cassady), who resembles a "Vertigo"-era Barbara Bel Geddes in her toughness and vulnerability.
The best part of "On the Road" is Salles' recognition and narrative empowerment of women who, in real life and in Kerouac's retelling, were subject to untold cruelty and misogyny that went largely unnoticed in subsequent mythologizing of the Beat Generation. This version of "On the Road" may not sing or soar, but it makes some crucial adjustments to a worldview that was simultaneously liberated and fatally blinkered.
ON THE ROAD
Cast: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst
Director: Walter Salles
Rated R (Contains strong sexual content, drug use and profanity)