On the Road was whether it was going to have anything of value for someone who has not read the book, as I have not (like The Catcher in the Rye, it inspires the kind of praise from its most devoted fans that could not possibly be more finely tuned to make it sound unspeakably disagreeable to someone like myself). The answer is "Lord, no", in the most unexceptional, unexciting manner possible: even without knowing much of anything about the content of Keroauc's largely fact-derived story of young people wandering around post-WWII America in search of an identity, or just something to lash out against, it's obvious as hell that Walter Salles's new film, with a script by Jose Rivera, is desperately in awe of its source material, and does not attempt to turn it into an interesting, enjoyable, or even functional narrative drama, but to sanctify it. Indeed, between the airless, anecdote-driven screenplay, the wall-to-wall cameos by distracting famous people, and the dead-eyed seriousness of absolutely every moment, it feels like nothing so much as a secular riff on The Greatest Story Ever Told: a cinematic attempt not to give life to a spiritual text, but to lacquer it.
That's maybe being a bit harsh: the film doesn't totally want for life, for it has a single terrific performance in the form of Garrett Hedlund, playing seductive libertine bisexual drug guru Dean Moriarity, whose role in the nominal plot is to take callow young Kerouac surrogate Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) - and by the way, I don't care if the prose flows off the tongue like honeyed Shakespeare, no book with a protagonist named Sal Paradise can be entirely good - under his wing, and show him a beautiful side of America free of the social constraints that something something. It's not very clear, actually: as a depiction of post-war anomie, On the Road thoroughly fails to contextualise its society in any useful way, and whatever it is that Sal and Dean and their friends are struggling against, the movie doesn't really care. It is romanticising youthful rebellion just for the sake of it, and instead of coming across like libertarian freedom fighters trying to carve out something meaningful in a dead world, the characters here are just a bunch of sex and drug-obsessed kids with no personalities. We can quibble all day long about The Master, but at least it had a keen awareness of what it was about post-war America that drove some men to the counterculture.
At any rate, On the Road has only the semblance of a narrative through line: Sal crisscrosses the country several times between 1947 and 1950, making numerous observations about the places and people he sees in the hopes of shaping his thoughts into a book; many of his adventures feature Dean prominently, along with a host of other individuals who are more or less transparent versions of people important in the creation of what we today call the Beat Generation: poet Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), short tempered wife of Dean, Camille (Kirsten Dunst), edgy older writer Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) and his scattered wife Jane (Amy Adams), and above all, Dean's child-bride lover Marylou (Kristen Stewart), who'd end up the rope in a homoerotic tug-of-war between Sal and Dean. Absolutely none of this is interesting, though it is very pretty: the film is shot with the faded languor of a high-end blue jeans ad by Eric Gautier, and if you'd asked me a week ago if it was possible to identify, on sight, the work of the man who lensed Into the Wild, I'd have said it was ridiculous. But sure enough, ten minutes into On the Road, around the time of the first aching landscape at dusk, I thought to myself, clear as a bell, Aw fuck, Eric Gautier must have shot this.
The Into the Wild comparison holds true for more than just the superficial, gorgeous cinematography: both films are travelogues about young men who just need to get out and be free, though the film does such a poor job of explaining why they need any of this that it's hard not to resent the protagonist somewhat as being a daft, immature poser; both of them feature hugely unexpected work from Kristen Stewart, easily her two best performances ever, though On the Road has even less of an idea what to do with her (or any other female character, for that matter) than Into the Wild did, and instead of breathing energy into the movie, Stewart just pulls focus from whatever momentum isn't building.
As much as Into the Wild, the film also resembles Salles and Rivera's last collaboration - also shot by Eric fucking Gautier* - 2004's The Motorcycle Diaries, also a midcentury road movie about an iconic figure to the pseudo-hippie left, Che Guevara, though the issue is less the film's content than its middling, content-light attempt to make us think he's interesting without bothering to tell an interesting story around him. I had no use for that movie at all, but it's still better than On the Road: its depiction of pre-Communism Ernesto Guevara might have been insubstantial as all hell, but at least it had some interest in demonstrating how the young man interacted with the society around him, and how that might have pointed him in some direction or another. Sal Paradise never emerges as more than a cipher - Riley's worst-in-show performance, flaccid physical acting married to a voice that totter uncertainly between "I'm a Kerouac parody" and "I'm a Brit losing a battle with an American accent", absolutely does not help the script in this regard, since Dean isn't really much on paper either, yet Hedlund is able to make a hellaciously attractive force of destruction out of the part - and what happens to him is too vaguely situated in any sort of character arc or great social movement for us to make much of an investment in it. In the end, it feels like nothing but picturesque landscape photography intercut with raucous, unerotic sex scenes, and smothered under Riley's flat reading of a mountain of voiceover: less a slice of Americana than an increasingly repetitive, increasingly tacky series of postcards and sweaty bodies.