Depending on your generational vantage point, Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel “On the Road” was the defining literary event of its generation or, as Truman Capote famously observed, an example not of writing but “just typing.”
Salles’ “On the Road” takes Kerouac’s breathless Beat Generation prose-poetry — created in a Benzedrine rush in front of a typewriter loaded with a 120-foot scroll of Teletype paper — and reduces it to the conventional elements of plot, character and setting, resulting in an episodic picaresque that all but obliterates the crazy, brazen, axis-shifting energy of the original work.
In other words, Salles has reduced “On the Road” to a story, which here begins in post-World War II New York, where Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is living with his mother in Queens, trying to become a writer, when he makes the acquaintance of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). Paradise and Moriarty — the fictional doppelgängers of Kerouac and his real-life confederate Neal Cassady — embark on a series of road trips during which they imbibe copious amounts of liquor, weed and hard-bop jazz, meet a colorful series of visionaries and reprobates and, in Moriarty’s case, attract and dump a succession of female companions.
Hedlund does a competently convincing job of embodying his character’s careless seductiveness. But Salles’ production is too careful, too obediently within-the-lines, to convey not just the combustible push-and-pull between Cassady and Kerouac, but the experimentation of the work that defined and memorialized their friendship.