If you didn't know that Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road was a seminal influence on postwar America, that it helped define a generation and even determined the course of significant aspects of modern pop culture, you would never, ever guess it from this lifeless, soulless, pointless adaptation.
Director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera bizarrely strip all cultural and historical context from a tale that desperately needs it today, 65 years after it is set. And without that, their film is only an assemblage of manboy exploits as self-indulgent layabouts smoke pot, listen to jazz, and write poetry.
Just what the hell is wannabe writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) rebelling against? In what way is the world failing to meet his expectations?
What is it about his new friend Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) that makes him, in Sal's eyes, "holy"? We haven't got a clue.
Sal and Dean here are no different than Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, or Harold and Kumar, except perhaps for their gorgeous period setting. (At least the film looks amazing, even if the content's a shame.) If we're meant to take it that Kerouac set the stage for stoner bromances, no thank you.
Sal and Dean talk about how they might get around to talking about stuff without ever actually getting around to saying anything of substance. In fact, perhaps the only moment consisting of something close to an authentic philosophical take on the world, as crass as it may be, comes from Amy Adams' kooky rural Louisiana housewife, who explains to Elisabeth Moss and Kristen Stewart, all ill-treated toys of the men here, that there's a certain necessity in giving out blow jobs.
Of course, that moment is the only conversation among women at all in the film, as if in Sal's world, women exist only in relation to men, and only congregate among themselves to discuss men. I'd love to be able to think that Salles is making some sort of postmodern criticism of Kerouac, that the women he's all but ignoring are living in the real world that the men perhaps think they're above, but there's no evidence for that.
I can't even see that there's a joke in the fact that the women are, quite literally, scrubbing floors while they have this conversation. If the moment isn't an accident, it's an opportunity that's thrown away as quickly as it is broached.
As, indeed, the rest of the film seems to be. The narrative is nothing but Sal chasing Dean around the country doing odds jobs and being miserable. Sometimes Sal is driven to scribble things on paper, once so inspired that he runs out of paper and resorts to using newspaper, but what he's writing is left a mystery. (The suggestion is that he's writing the very story we see on screen, but again we get no indication as to why it's worth telling.) It's as if the entire film is made up of all the bits in between the interesting bits, which have been cut out. It's a shameful waste of a fantastic cast, which also features Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi and Alice Braga.
Why did this story hit like a ton of cultural bricks in the 1950s? Why is it still important today? This On the Road has no insight and no hindsight.