Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) met Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) through mutual friend Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge). Carlo and Sal were both aspiring writers but getting nowhere fast with their dream professions, though perhaps they had not lived enough yet to have much to say, much to relate. Then Dean entered their lives and changed all that - not immediately, but Sal could tell he was somebody truly marching to the beat of his own drum, someone who if he latched onto him could take him to interesting places, out there, on the road...
Jack Kerouac's seminal beat novel was the subject of many attempts at adapting it for the big screen down the years, with a host of famous names attached before finally Walter Salles managed to land the job thanks to one of the most well-known directors who wanted to shoot it, Francis Ford Coppola, staying on as executive producer, thus leaving the way open for the Brasilian to approach the book much as he had Che Guevara's journals a few years before with The Motorcycle Diaries. If you hadn't appreciated what Salles had done there, in all likelihood you were not going to be on board with the version scripted by Jose Rivera here.
To Salles' credit, he did make it look very pretty, with a golden glow to many scenes - perhaps too many scenes - of the characters set against the rolling landscapes of late forties-early fifties America. But where the novel had been an act of qualified hero worship from Kerouac to his friend Neal Cassady, here there was a move to make the people more human and less iconic, so that the subsequent tut-tutting the source had received from revisionists regarding the supposed irresponsibility depicted on the page now had more than a few reminders that these men were not behaving in a manner that showed them in a good light, and you really should not try to emulate them. In its way, this was a patronising lens Salles applied to the novel, and showed up its take on the material.
Therefore for every sequence where Dean and Sal are having a whale of a time there was a character, usually a woman, pointing out that they should be acting more dependably towards the others in their lives, rendering the females, just about every one with more than a few lines, in the same mould, that being sooner or later the ladies in your life will start complaining, without fail. You could see that as Salles playing up the homosexual attraction between his two lead male characters, except that though Sal loves Dean, he doesn't do so in a sexual way here - a threesome with Dean's teenage wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart) ends with Sal giggling and Dean being asked to leave them to it.
This irritation was more the fault of the script than the cast, who were perfectly fine. Stewart, thanks to her association with a certain romantic movie franchise, came in for criticism from those who did not wish to see their beloved book sullied by the presence of a teen queen, but actually she offered very little to complain about, and arguably her Marylou was more three-dimensional than on the page though if that's what an adaptation truly needed was more open for debate. Guest stars frequently hoved into view to be dropped once the boys moved on, so here was Viggo Mortensen as the William S. Burroughs stand-in Old Bull stepping into his orgone accumulator and oops, that's him gone, not seen again until a fever dream near the end.
And was that Amy Adams as his unstable wife, giving Elisabeth Moss advice on oral sex? Was that Kirsten Dunst appearing as a dream girl who with crushing predictability turns into a harpy the nanosecond she bears Dean a child? And that really was Steve Buscemi getting well and truly shagged by Hedlund in return for a lift (thus gay sex is presented as sordid). So much for the guest stars, who barely made the right impression, but then the bond between the two mates who for a few years had one of the strongest friendships around before the inevitable drifting apart was less than convincing as well. There was too much viewing the past through the prism of the present, which may have satisfied the critics of Kerouac's work but made the movie artificial with its picture postcard appearance and careful yet soulless recreations of the period. The fact remained if On the Road should have been made into a film at all, and there was no good reason why it should, something nearer the time would have been preferable - that time had passed. Music by Gustavo Santaolalla.