A dash of Tarantino might have juiced up Walter Salles’ wrongheadedly well-mannered take on Jack Kerouac’s 1957 Beat Generation landmark. Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical novel comes to the screen looking good but feeling shallow. Kerouac, here called Sal Paradise and played by Sam Riley, hits the road with his pals to find a non-conformist America spiked by drugs, jazz and poetry. Hey, man.
Sal’s life spins around Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a restless thrill-seeker based on Neal Cassady. Dean, in bed with wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart), invites Sal to hop in. The sights of San Francisco, New Orleans and Mexico can’t compete, especially when Dean hooks up with Camille (a stellar Kirsten Dunst) and hardly discourages the attentions of a poet (Tom Sturridge), modeled on Allen Ginsberg.
Got that? Didn’t think so. Jose Rivera’s script attempts to jam it all in while director Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) keeps a hand-held camera whirling to suggest churning excitement. No deal. Hedlund and Riley do their best. And Stewart, free of Twilight, does better. She’s a live wire. In the front seat of a car with Sal and Dean – all naked – she jerks off both boys with a joy that defines free spirit. The rest of On the Road feels tight and constricted.