Bella Swan, Lois Lane and Peggy Olson are doing housework together, catching up. (Mary Jane Watson couldn't make it, but we'll meet her again soon.) One scrubs the kitchen floor. Another washes dishes. All three compare notes on blow-job technique and necessity. Good fellatio, they agree, is the best prescription to ward off the domestic evil that men do.
The men in this case are the drink-fueled, philosophy-hungry literary agonists of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, bedrock novel of the Beat Generation and instruction manual for shitty companions in any era. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty have left no gutter unpissed in and no woman unabandoned during their travels so far. Now they've come to Old Bull Lee's rural hideout for a little spiritual recharge, some semi-hallucinatory guy talk about Celine, Proust, fucking.
Sal, of course, is Kerouac, and Dean is Neal Cassady. (Old Bull is William S. Burroughs, forever the shaman.) They talk big, trek hard and, most of all, mail furiously, with Cassady's letters to Kerouac (and to Allen Ginsberg, whose poetry knights Cassady a cocksman) the glowing, unstable core of the Beat movement. (Cassady wrote to Ginsberg about his prose, about its failures of clarity, as though he knew none of it would be published in his short lifetime.) They're sharing a postwar cultural moment, a communion eroticized by the conviction that they're going to alter it, take it for themselves. It's this moment, this blurring of the fictional On the Road with its own ghosts, that Walter Salles means to capture with his movie version (written by José Rivera).
But the real historic summit onscreen is among the women: Kristen Stewart (heroine of the Twilight film franchise), Amy Adams (about to spend the summer with Superman in Man of Steel) and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men returns April 7!), with dashes of Spider-Man survivor Kirsten Dunst. It has been almost 60 years since On the Road was published (and longer than that since Kerouac typed it), and Salles has fatally miscast the now-unfamiliar faces at its center. English actor Sam Riley self-consciously plays Sal playing Kerouac, and he gets no charge from his supposed muse; as fast-talking Dean, dully handsome Garrett Hedlund drawls his lines like he's reading for a Coors commercial. So the actresses are the most iconic faces (and expert performers) in this On the Road — a fact that brings into uncomfortable relief just how dated and misogynistic the source material is. (Salles' movie also suffers from its proximity to last year's The Master; that movie might owe a glancing debt to Kerouac, but it's still a far better stew of domestic expatriation, wanderlust and male bonding than this one.)
In Sal's telling, Dean's cocksmanship is an incidental symptom of a writer's desperation, his fever to compose lasting sentences. (Among the ripple effects of Kerouac's novel: untold armies of so-so writers aching to be cocksmen.) It's hardly Dean's fault that the women who succumb to his charisma often end up a hard combination of pregnant, cheated on and divorced. Stewart, Adams and Moss convey some sympathy for that predicament, for their characters' in-the-way-ness, and they make light comedy of their scene. They know that when your William S. Burroughs is Aragorn — Viggo Mortensen wanders down from the mountain for his few minutes as Old Bull — there's not much doubt about dude supremacy.
But it's precisely here that Salles' solemn, slogging adaptation flies out of the gutter, over the road and right into the ditch. Casting as Kerouac's mistreated women a group of actors far more appealing than the leading men is either a mistake or a dodge, but it halts the movie's shaky momentum with a lot of miles left to go. The movie is 125 minutes, but it feels like a bus ride from San Francisco to Denver — minus the Benzedrine.
Whatever light Coke Zero buzz On the Road delivers comes from cinematographer Eric Gautier's Ektachrome skies and beautifully bleak expanses of open country (set too infrequently to the wordy bop of old Slim Gaillard songs). But there's a little too much romance in Salles' compositions, a feeling that he's again revisiting his 2004 earnest-bros travelogue, The Motorcycle Diaries. In his frames, the neon-hued skid rows and the postcard-ready cotton-picking camps and the bug-trap apartments exert equal sighing fascination. Too much is period for period's sake, motionless art direction impeding what should be a greedy quest for spontaneous, ecstatic movement.