Now showing @ Cornerhouse… Reviewed: On the Road

By John Paul Shammas

This week at Cornerhouse, the highly-anticipated adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s cherished American novel ‘On the Road’ comes to the screen.

American cinema has a pre-cautious, obsessive relationship with the notion of travel. Kubrick’s ‘Lolita’, Malick’s ‘Badlands’, and let’s not forget Victor Fleming’s ‘Wizard of Oz’, all illuminate this very-American phobia of being taken away from where you presume you belong.

Wether ‘On the Road’ manages to deliver something similar with a character and an identity that equals this strong artistic tradition is a question that serves to highlight how this masterfully crafted and impeccably performed adaptation fails to deliver on the complex level Kerouac’s novel deserves.

Set in late-1940’s New York, Sal Paradise is a young, idealistic writer who’s trying to take off. The story takes shape after he meets Dean Moriarty, a charismatic, self-destructive writer, as they are compelled to set off on the road.

Kerouac himself described the major themes of the story, and what really compelled Sal and Dean’s odyssey, as a purely religious motivation resulting in the discovery that a notion of God could be found within personal, inward revelation.

Unfortunately, this adaptation of ‘On the Road’ reduces these lofty thematic ambitions, condensing proceedings to merely involving a lot of drugs, jazz and sex, robbing the characters of any true discovery, emotional depth or development.

Sal and Dean’s self-destructive cycles have no true trajectory despite the interspersed pseduo-intellectual interventions of some choice dialogue.

The film, which is undoubtedly a work of high craft, serves somewhat-accidentally to pay testament not to the charismatic leads and their misled, meandering rationale, but rather to the silent, overarching character of the 1940s American landscape which is impeccably shot, propped and characterised.

Pop-in cameo performances from Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi and Amy Adams are, like the rest of the cast, flawless but unfortunately their work is set against a plot that, much like our tragic leads Sal and Dean, is unsure of itself, devoid of clarity and purpose.

Whilst ‘On the Road’ has it’s redeeming features, namely Kirsten Stewart’s head-turning performance as Marylou, fans of the book will be devastated that the flair and craft of director Walter Salles could not pay testament to this intensely-loved novel, or it’s definitive characters.

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