FRANCHISE ME: A Good Day to Die Hard
March 30, 2013
IAFT – Making Movies
March 31, 2013

Movie Curiosities: On the Road

Let’s talk about Kristen Stewart. You start.

Seriously, I know basically nothing about the young actress. The bulk of her work has been in the Twilight Saga, and I’ve spent the past several years trying to avoid anything related to Stephanie Meyer. I know that Stewart has tried her luck at more dramatic fare with Welcome to the Rileys, Adventureland, and The Runaways, though I haven’t seen any of those movies yet.

Then of course, Stewart has a whole ‘nother career as a tabloid celebrity. Her ongoing “real-life” soap opera with Robert Pattinson is another thing that I’ve gone very far out of my way to ignore, but her adulterous act of career sabotage held great interest for me. Not that it was ever going to last, of course: She’s young, she’s popular, she’s got a huge fanbase, she was always going to be fine.

By comparison, Rupert Sanders’ career flamed out in that incident and never recovered. Because nobody ever cared about him like people (for whatever reason) care about Stewart. It’s like Oscar Wilde said: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Nowhere (except maybe in politics) is that statement more true than in show business. But I digress.

With regards to her film career, I can only claim firsthand knowledge of Snow White and the Huntsman. Stewart was pitifully out of her depth in the title role, but her casting was so transparently a studio-mandated ploy at courting the Twihard crowd that I’m not too inclined to hold it against her.

Then came news of On the Road, an attempt at adapting the Jack Kerouac novel that many called unfilmable. This was supposed to be Stewart’s big break from Bella Swan, the film to finally prove that she could play more adult roles as well. Never mind that she had already tried her hand at playing Joan Jett in one movie and a stripper in another, this one would feature her topless while giving handjobs to two guys at once.

Someone’s trying a little too hard, methinks.

Speaking of desperation, one of the actors in the aforementioned circle-jerk is Garrett Hedlund. You may remember him as the next big up-and-coming leading man, right until the one-two punch of Tron: Legacy and Country Strong took the guy down before he had even really started. This guy’s got just as much to prove as Stewart, if not more.

Otherwise, the cast and crew for this film is a very mixed bag. The picture is directed by Walter Salles, whose only noteworthy works before this were The Motorcycle Diaries and Dark Water. Kerouac himself (or at least his analogue character, Sal) is played by Sam Riley, otherwise known for precisely jack. Yet among all the nobodies and would-be stars in this cast, we’ve got Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Terrence Howard, and Kirsten Dunst.

Between the strangely eclectic cast and my total lack of knowledge about the source material, I had no idea what to expect from this movie. I don’t know, maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had.

The first thing to know about this movie is that there is no plot. None. Nada. Zilch. Characters come and go as they please, and many have little to no effect on the overall proceedings.

The only constant presence through the entire film is our protagonist, the aforementioned Sal Paradise (Sam Riley). He’s an aspiring writer coming of age in post-WWII New York, and he has a habit of befriending strange and unusual people. Weird folk tend to create the most inspiration, you see.

Sal spends most of his time with stoners, slackers, black people (especially black musicians), homosexuals, fellow writers… basically, the kinds of people who would be openly lynched in the conservative 1940s. And one day, Sal hits the motherlode: A grifter from Denver, name of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). Dean is a man fresh out of jail for multiple acts of carjacking, newly arrived in NYC with his underaged wife (Marylou, played by Kristen Stewart). Dean later divorces Marylou to go and raise a family with another woman (Camille, played by Kirsten Dunst), though he continues banging Marylou on the side.

As Viggo Mortensen’s character so aptly put it, Dean is a man who accepts absolutely no responsibility for himself, but he takes it for granted that everyone is somehow responsible for him. The man is so charismatic that people are naturally drawn to him, so he’ll suck all the money, drugs, love, and help he can get from them before growing bored and moving on. Not that Dean does this out of spite, mind you, he’s just wilfully immune to the very concept of responsibility. No matter how much trouble he causes or how many hearts he breaks, grief slides off him like water from a duck’s back.

Anyway, Sal and Dean welcome each other into their respective circles of friends. Dean — who, by the way, is so loose with his sexuality that he’ll gladly go both ways — becomes close with Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), a friend of Sal’s who was modeled after Allen Ginsberg. Meanwhile, Sal gets acquainted with the various friends and lovers of Dean, and so get caught up in plenty of their problems.

This is basically the whole movie, folks. Some friend will require the assistance of Sal and/or Dean, so they’ll travel from one end of the country to another, getting stoned, having sex, stealing food, racking up speeding tickets, and sharing profound insights the whole way. There is no structure, no endgame, no beginning, no ending, and nothing overt in the way of theme. There isn’t even a central conflict or crisis to be found here, other than Sal’s need for story material.

Even though I’ve never read the book, I can tell just from watching the film how hard the text was to adapt. Though the camerawork is often quite beautiful, it’s too often marred by spastic editing, like huge swaths were left on the cutting room floor. More importantly, the narrative’s rambling structure and the story’s introspective nature both lend themselves to prose in a way that film never could.

(Side note: I understand that at some point after the film’s premiere at Cannes, 13 minutes of the movie — some of the film’s sexier moments among them — were cut. I expect that this is one of the reasons behind the sloppier editing moments.)

Still, I can understand why so many filmmakers have tried and failed to adapt this story over the years: This prose is damn beautiful. Every other spoken line is sheer poetry. Such masterful dialogue is like gold for an actor, and the cast does phenomenal work with it. Even better, the story provides several bizarre bit roles for the bigger-name stars to play. This provides a brief opportunity for established actors to explore some decidedly unglamorous roles that Hollywood might never offer them. I’m loathe to spoil too many examples, but suffice to say I never thought I’d see Amy Adams mime a blowjob onscreen. And that’s not even close to the craziest thing she does in this picture.

Regarding the lesser-known actors, Sam Riley puts in a fine performance as the film’s lead. Sal is smart and proactive enough to be an interesting character in his own right, yet he’s just withdrawn enough to serve as a sounding board for all the craziness going on around him. Credit is also due to Tom Sturridge, who plays Carlo with remarkable amounts of genius and sadness in equal measure.

Still, the MVP of this movie is easily Garrett Hedlund. The guy plays a true rogue and a heartbreaker, but he plays the role with an irresistable kind of swagger and charm. Dean’s capricious joie de vivre is fascinating to watch, especially considering how grungy and horny Hedlund is willing to get in his performance. It’s such a damn shame that Hedlund made his first impression with Sam Flynn, a rogue who was designed to be the new star of a multimillion-dollar CGI franchise. Stripped of all that artifice and Hollywood sheen, Hedlund is finally able to show what wonders he can really do with a ne’er-do-well character. Wonderfully done.

On the flip side, we have Kristen Stewart. She was given this beauty of a script, filled with so much exquisite dialogue that came (however indirectly) from the pen of Kerouac himself. She was given this character who goes through depressing lows, ecstatic highs, and overwhelming passions. Absolutely everything was set up in Stewart’s favor, and somehow, she still botched it. Stewart took this dynamic and complex character, only to play her with all the charm and personality of a carpet sample. I’m sorry, I know I’m behind the curve on this one, but I’m finally ready to call it: The girl is a dud. Plain and simple. Send her back for more acting lessons and bring in the next young ingenue waiting in line.

Put simply, your enjoyment of On the Road will depend on your ability to forgive a film with no plot. Watching this film, you will be forced to remember that the rambling and aimless narrative isn’t a bug, but a feature. I won’t lie, it was really difficult for me to do this. Still, if you can tune into the film’s bizarre nature, and if you can overlook Stewart’s disappointing blandness, you’ll find a fascinating piece of counter-culture art that features some damn fine performances. If nothing else, I’d recommend the film as proof that Garrett Hedlund has some honest-to-God talent.

With all of that said, however, I’d wager that the book is far better.

For more Movie Curiosities, check out my blog. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter.