I've never read Kerouac's novel and before you erupt with fervent indignation as to how I can review Walter Salles's On The Road without having read the book, I'm here to review the film. In fact, I think this cold objective stance makes me the perfect candidate. I have no affiliation with the book so this won't be a contrast and compare review where I find the film lacking the genius of Kerouac, and nor am I prejudiced against the source material - the famous review that the book wasn't writing but typing isn't an issue either. I'm coming to this with fresh eyes.
Fresh eyes that got tired very quickly. Originally twenty or so minutes longer, On The Road was trimmed considerably after a Cannes reaction that was less than favourable. The heavy cutting can't help what is a plotless and pointless series of stuff that happens without rhyme or reason. This synopsis puts more shape on the film that the film does:
Lonely writer Sal Paradise (a raspy voiced Riley) is stuck in a glum 1947 New York and struggles for inspiration. That all changes when he meets the carefree and charismatic Dean Moriarty (Hedlund) and his sixteen-year-old promiscuous wife Marylou (Stewart), whom Sal can't take his eyes off. When Dean and Marylou leave for Denver, Sal follows suit and soon the trio take to the road looking for kicks...
And then some more kicks. And then some more. The problem is all in the set up: Sal isn't given a real want, something the audience can wish for him and despair for him when he's far from it, etc. His desire to write a book is too vague and too obscure for us so when the story slows down and looks for something for its characters to do it can't find it. Eventually, the endless car scenes and the wanton abandon of drugs and sex becomes a real bore. The grimy cramped apartments start to look the same. What's hinted at, and what could have been something to keep things ticking over, is Sal's latent love for Marylou but this love triangle never ignites. Probably attracted to the material because of its (somewhat) likeness to The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles finds that Sal Paradise is no Che Guevara. Where Che formed a kinship with the people he met on the road and led to his political epiphany, Sal doesn’t suffer from the same conscience. Instead, we’re asked to side with these rather unlikeable people because the only other option are authority figures: bully cops, exploitive pawnbrokers and racist shopkeepers.
Sal, Dean and Marylou might be unlikeable but they are at least interesting and the cast give the best they got. Stewart, once again choosing a role that's a decent stretch from mopey Bella, entertains as Marylou and Riley finally finds a character that lets him express the way Control's Ian Curtis did. It's Hedlund, however, that outshines everyone. Finally delivering on the promise of Country Strong, a promise that was forgotten for the forgettable turn in Tron: Legacy, Hedlund is brilliant here as he makes the despicable cheating Dean, a man who beds Kirsten Dunst's Camille, sires two children and then does a bunk, engaging. The support cast of Terrence Howard, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams and Elisabeth Moss appear in cameos only.
Interesting characters played by committed actors, On The Road's undoing is that it doesn't go anywhere.