“On The Road” Movie Review

Let me say first, this is completely unrelated to jiu-jitsu.

Let me also say that I feel it would be remiss of me to not use my platform, limited though it be, to decry Walter Salles’ silver screen version of On The Road by Jack Kerouac. OTR is my favorite novel in the entire world; I read it, on average, every six months and have been doing so for the past four years; and I’ve been on the prowl for a copy of the movie in one form or another since I read about it debuting at the Cannes Film Festival (~May 2012). After many an arduous hour searching all these long months, I found a copy on the Internet this past Sunday.

The movie is bad. Very bad.

In fact, the movie is so bad that I thought the only way I could finally bring myself to sling word-rocks and word-arrows at my beloved Kerouac was if I was drunk.1 So after training yesterday, I made myself a giant glass of Bombay Sapphire gin w/tonic and started to get Hemingway drunk, Hitchens drunk, Bukowski drunk. Loose-lipped from drink, I would give Walter Salles the verbal beating of his life.

But I’ve been sick for ten days or so; and yesterday was my first full day back. The goddamn shellacking I received from Mr. Kennedy, and the post-workout shower/meal/stretching/groaning/crying all came together with the drink and put me to sleep instead. I did not even finish the MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani before passing out on the soft carpet in front of my laptop.

This morning, however, I write to you with a strong cup of coffee and 48 almonds swimming in my guts. And as I’m not the biggest fan of day drinking, I guess I’m just going to have to do this sober. Here we go.

Here were my first two impressions of Walter Salles’ version of On The Road:

“My absolute favorite book in the world was rendered into so bad a movie that, after watching it, I’ve been unable to do anything but stare at the little blinking line with indicates where text entered in your keyboard appears. This has been going on for over ten minutes now. I literally find myself unable to express my thoughts on it. Goddamn everyone involved.”

“The strangest part is that the movie didn’t really omit too much. Most of the characters and plot points were worked into the movie in some fashion. And the movie was beautiful. But it was just completely, baffingly flat. I can tell you right now that people of the world experience more emotions sloughing off a wet, post-coital prophylactic after a drunken, lackluster, one-night stand, tossing that unholy little scumbag into the toilet, and flushing it away. Hardly an exaggeration.”

How did things go so wrong? Where did they take such a wrong turn? How could a novel about emotions and kicks and thrills and impulsive decisions and drinking and jazz be adapted into such a sleepy, facile, emotionless movie without much dialogue and a lot of pretty, authentic-looking scenes?

What I would say is that the writer(s) of the screenplay ultimately decided to NOT make a few hard decisions about what to include, what to omit, who to focus on, who to leave behind – going, instead, with the George Lucas approach of “How about I just include everything that could possibly fit in one single movie?”

[And what goddamn awful movies he’s been making since surrounding himself with only “yes” men.]

By god did they do their fair share of cramming too – the movie was over two hours long. For the briefest of seconds, it was even magical to see the beautiful and tragic Terry rendered in real life (whose body really was “brown as grapes”), to see Carlo Marx dancing like an ape in New York alleyways, or pointing at everyone, accusatory, in that famous kitchen scene (“What is the meaning of this voyage to New York? What kind of sordid business are you on now? I mean, man, whither goest thou? Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” pg. 119), to see the ridiculous, mad Old Bull Lee played very well by Viggo Mortensen, and so on with a few dozen other things.

But then the reality hit: there was no reason to care about any of these characters. From the perspective of an audience member new to OTR, there never was. The movie opens with Sal Paradise hitchhiking and singing a song, about to get on “[t]he greatest ride of his life,” as he describes in chapter 4. After condensing down those series of chapters which develop the idea of open possibility and an extraordinary expression of carefree living (characterized by the people sitting inside the bed of the truck with him) – after condensing it down to perhaps 90 seconds, the opening lines from the book are heard.

Dean is introduced shortly after, along with Dean’s penchant for homosexual liaisons (from which they did not shy away, and which I liked – this also suggests they’re reading more from the original scroll than the published version of OTR). But we still don’t know who Sal is. Marylou looks dirty, like a goddamn junkie – a far cry from the “…pretty blonde with immense ringlets of hair like a sea of golden tresses; she sat there on the edge of the couch with her hands hanging in her lap with her smoky blue country eyes fixed in a wide stare…waiting like a longbodied emaciated Modigliani surrealist woman in a serious room.”

Cut scene to the end of the night. Dean and Sal spend twenty seconds or so toasting to their dead fathers. Now they’re best friends forever.

I guess. Big “I fucking guess.” This speaks to a larger point, actually…

The whole time I could not stop wondering “At what point am I supposed to start caring about any of these characters?” “As an audience member, with whom am I supposed to empathize?” With the book, I empathize some with both Dean and Sal. With the movie, I found myself ambivalent about both characters – shocked how little of the deeper substance of either Dean’s or Sal’s actual character transferred onto the big screen. Dean didn’t gently descend down a ever-steepening slope toward a callous madness. Past the two hour mark, and after he had left Sal sick in Mexico, he suddenly appears in New York, looking stricken, craven, broken by something, a living shadow of a man. But why? What happened to Dean? Was he the main character?

Or was it Sal? Sal with the voice like he’s been smoking unfiltered cigarettes for the past twenty years? Our supposed Everyman, who takes a book from Kristen Stewart’s library by NEVER showing a single emotion throughout the entire movie? He’s a goddamn EveryRobot in this movie. A writer who doesn’t feel emotions? How believable is that?! Aside from his bout with dysentery, where were his Dean-like fits, his rants, his capriciousness, his lust for life? By cutting out the majority (but not all) the adventures Sal had by himself, I think we can safely assume he is not the main character.

The third option – and I think the correct one – is ‘The Road’ itself. Travel is the main character. It is possible for travel to be the focus of art. But usually the lessons and meaning of travel, an abstract idea, are focused through some conduit – an Anthony Bourdain, for example. He travels and tell us what he saw, what it meant, what things smelled like.

Or you can do a movie like Samsara which is very explicitly about travel, about showing you the striking images themselves, a story told with music (because you probably can’t have ONLY images) instead of a narrator, or general experiencer of said sights.

But what then are we to make of On The Road? A beloved novel is turned into a movie. Okay. Specifically because it is so beloved, excising anything from it will be sacrilegious to somebody. Okay. Better to shoehorn as many plot points and lines from the actual book as possible, than to parse down the novel into a size manageable by a movie. Wrong.

Let ‘The Road/Travel/Adventure’ be the main focus of the movie. Good-intentioned Idea. There was a lot of quiet in this movie, lots of brooding quiet, lots of camera panning over beautiful landscapes quiet. Okay, a result of ‘travel’ being the main character. The scenes with dialogue, the scenes where the audience attaches themselves to and begin to care about the characters all felt super abridged, super rushed, facile, skin-deep, impossibly underdone – everyone was a hackish caricature of Kerouac’s own caricature of those real-life people – the most appalling example of which is Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg). This, I think, is the crucial error in the movie. Without characters to care for, the probability of having a movie worth caring for drops precipitously.

The scenery was beautiful, to be sure. Whether or not things were actually authentic, I could not say. They certainly looked authentic, though. The locations, the cars, old New York, the costumes all looked real.

But at the end of the day, the reason we are moved when watching a puppet show is not because the puppets look like real animals, or real monsters, or real people. It’s because they ACTED like real animals or real monsters or real people.

And if you don’t believe, here is an example of the extent to which an audience will suspend disbelief. This is Nina Conti’s ventriloquist bit. She intentionally breaks the ventriloquist’s illusion, again and again, yet I found myself still suspending disbelief until the end. It’s both funny, and even a little disturbing. It’s all about acting real.

At the end of the day, there were only pretty pictures in Salles’ adaptation of Kerouac’s work. These pretty pictures were interrupted with rushed snippets of dialogue, sex, smoking, and jazz, all done by mediocre actors in the limited time allotted. Unfortunately, no reasonable audience member (most especially someone unfamiliar with the source material) can be expected care about any of them – Dean, the funny dancer, Sal, the robot-writer, Carlo, an objectively crazy, or Travel, the porcelain doll equal parts strikingly beautiful and emotionally vapid.

Justin Baize

p.s. – I am very surprised at the extent to which I managed to curtail my deep, deep desire to use as many bad words as humanly possible.


1. I’m not kidding.


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