For reasons no critic quite comprehends, Neal Cassady commanded the attention and indeed the love of most of the major members of the Beat Generation, dominating their literature and their lives. The Beat saint, the holy goof, a car thief, street hustler, speed freak, and prodigious womanizer, he even accomplished the odd transition from one literary generation to another, joining Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, immortalized in Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."
The first true cinematic adaptation of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" (a superficial sketch of the characters, "Heart Beat," appeared in 1980) adheres reasonably closely to the book, one of the important American novels of the 20th century and perhaps the best representation of the first modern counter culture. Anyone who knows the novel, the period, or even the literary chatter about it recognizes that the work is a roman á clef, a novel with a key, populated by fictional versions of well-known people, which makes the movie something of an exercise in identification.
All the famous figures appear — Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg), Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs), Sal Paradise (Kerouac), and of course Dean Moriarty (Cassady). The movie begins abruptly without prologue or title, showing Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), an inspired driver, parking cars in New York, then meeting Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) and launching the famous friendship. From that point, the plot roughly follows the pattern of the book, with Sal narrating the story of his travels, initially leaving Ginsberg's "nowhere Zen New Jersey" to journey back and forth across the country, periodically meeting up with Dean and his various wives and lovers. Now and then in his travels, hitching rides, working various jobs, Sal experiences something of the vast landscape of America, a Whitmanesque vision of the people and places that constitute the real spirit of the nation.
Although it appeared in 1957, the novel actually deals with the previous decade, which the movie captures with a genuine sense of authenticity — the music, the clothes, the cars (especially the cars), and the general mood of a delayed post-war exuberance, which itself may account for the phenomenon of the Beats. In the great tradition of the picaresque, Sal, Dean, and their companions constantly travel and constantly stay one step ahead of the law, stealing food and gasoline, cadging money, freeloading from various friends, and collecting speeding tickets from unsympathetic highway patrolmen. In the same tradition, the film sometimes falls into a dull, repetitive pattern when the characters stop moving — as Dean says in the book, "The road is life."
The characters themselves display a kind of behavior perhaps more shocking in their time than now, including the use of heroin, marijuana, and Benzedrine (probably the key to Cassady's boundless energy) and some unusual sexual arrangements. Sal sleeps with Dean's wife, Marylou (Kristen Stewart), while Dean looks on, and Dean has sex with anybody and everybody, including his two wives, some other women, Carlo Marx, and a weird salesman (Steve Buscemi).
Though physically suited for the role of Dean Moriarty, Garret Hedlund runs out of dialogue, so that like the silly scenes of him jumping up and down in front of a hand-held camera, he seems confined to repeating himself over and over. Sam Riley is far too callow and passive for Sal Paradise, who after all is older than Dean and a man of some experience; instead, Riley looks like an adolescent worshipping the high-school football star. Amazingly, Kristen Stewart, the insipid princess of the "Twilight" saga, performs quite creditably both in and out of her clothes, showing a whole new possibility and some previously hidden talents.
Too much of "On the Road" literalizes the novel, with characters delivering lines they've already written—Ginsberg quoting "Howl" before he even writes it, and Paradise writing the novel as he lives it. Like Kerouac's book, the script finally runs out of steam, ending with a downbeat scene of farewell between Sal and Dean. It also includes, in Sal's final voice-over narration, some of the lovely lyrical coda that almost compensates for the disillusionments of Dean's various manipulations and betrayals. The road is life, but the end of the road turns out to be something else.