A classic novel’s long journey to the bigscreen comes to a gratifying but not exactly triumphant end with “On the Road,” a handsome visual companion to Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation touchstone that seems unlikely to occupy a place of similar resonance in the hearts and minds of those who see it. Evocatively lensed, skillfully made and duly attentive to the mercurial qualities of its daunting source material, Walter Salles’ picture pulses with youthful energy but feels overly calculated in its bid for spontaneity, attesting to the difficulty and perhaps futility of trying to reproduce Kerouac’s literary lightning onscreen.
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Widely considered unfilmable despite the movies’ long-running love affair with the open road, Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical tale of wanderlust and self-discovery has passed through the hands of innumerable writers and directors since exec producer Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights in 1978. Kerouac himself asked Marlon Brando to spearhead a movie version in the late ’50s, an era whose social, moral and cinematic climate would scarcely have allowed the type of picture that has emerged more than half a century later.
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Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera previously tackled a story of idealistic young men traveling cross-country in “The Motorcycle Diaries,” and here they seek to render Kerouac’s recollections of postwar America in a vibrant, present-tense idiom. To that end, the film employs a jittery syntax — fleet handheld camerawork, frequent jump cuts and a swinging jazz score that erupts at regular intervals — to supply a superficial equivalent of the author’s restless prose, supplemented with abundant helpings of sweaty sex and occasional nudity.
In keeping with the improvisatory Beat spirit, Rivera’s script necessarily truncates the novel’s incidents and incorporates elements from Kerouac’s famous original scroll. That much is clear from the outset when Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), an aspiring French-Canadian writer living in 1947 Queens, N.Y., references his dad’s recent death — a scroll-specific detail employed here to impose an overt fathers-and-sons theme on the material.
Not long after the funeral, Sal meets handsome Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), the skirt-chasing, marijuana-smoking, car-stealing rascal who, as modeled after Beat icon Neal Cassady, serves as the story’s irrepressible, irresistible central figure. First seen opening a door stark naked (not for the last time), Dean is the life of a seemingly endless party, loved by his moody wife, Marylou (Kristen Stewart), and lusted after by young poet Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge). Exerting a gravitational pull on Sal, Dean implores his new friend to join him later out West.
Hitchhiking his way to Denver, Sal finds Dean carrying on with not only Marylou but also classy blonde Camille (Kirsten Dunst). Dean continues to toggle between the two women throughout, confusing things further by occasionally coaxing Sal into joint lovemaking sessions with Marylou. While the two men never act on the homoerotic underpinnings suggested by their affectionate relationship, the film is fairly candid about Dean’s sexual availability to either gender, provided there’s something in it for him.
Having retraced Kerouac’s routes in preparation for and during the shoot, the filmmakers work hard to impart a sense of texture and duration to Sal’s travels, distilling minor episodes into brief scenes and carving out a longer narrative arc from the book’s essential passages. A New Orleans visit with Sal’s morphine-addicted mentor Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) and subsequent misadventures in San Francisco, New York and Mexico collectively form a whirlwind of incident that doesn’t suggest the raw confusion of early adulthood so much as the compromises and sacrifices of an imposing screenwriting task.
Salles compensates to some degree with a certain stylistic verve, stimulating the film’s rhythms with jazz-band interludes and close-up dance sequences. Yet despite the high level of craft here, it’s an inadequate substitute for the thrilling, sustaining intelligence of Kerouac’s voice.
Admittedly, any definitive adaptation would have to adopt a radically avant-garde approach to approximate the galvanic impact Kerouac’s novel had on literary form. But even audiences content with an easy-listening version may be put off by the weak conception of Sal’s inner life. The blur of events and surface impressions onscreen consequently feels overlong at 139 minutes, yet nowhere near long enough, and even Riley’s appealing, bright-eyed turn can’t keep Sal from seeming a passive, psychologically weak protagonist.
The other actors hit their notes effectively, particularly Mortensen and Sturridge as the respective alter egos of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg; and Stewart and Dunst, whose warm, emotionally accessible turns lend Marylou and Camille more flesh and character than they had on the page. But the meatiest thesping opportunities naturally go to Hedlund, who brings a winning, boyish quality to the id-on-legs that is Dean Moriarty. Though propelled by a feverish, even convulsive energy, Hedlund also gets moments of quiet reflection that encourage sympathy for Dean’s irresponsible behavior.
A tour de force of location scouting, the film revels in the beauty of American highways, bridges and landscapes that, as showcased by Eric Gautier’s crisp, lush widescreen photography, perfectly illustrate what Sal at one point calls “the purity of the open road.”