On the Road is rich with evocative period atmosphere and anchored by a trio of compellingly lived-in performances from Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart. Nevertheless, it's another staid adaptation that misses the forest for the trees and confuses people into thinking that some novels truly are "unfilmmable." Awkwardly pitched to both the mad ones and the multiplexes in equal measure, Walter Salles' cinematic take on the definitive portrait of the Beat Generation is an agonizingly comprised vision, a sensual but soulless story of a young man's journey of self-discovery during the rollicking 1940s. The novel's cultural foothold and Stewart's rabid fan-base could provide IFC Films with a modest art house hit, but the movie will likely enjoy its greatest success via its day-and-date VOD release.
Legend (aka Wikipedia) has it that, almost immediately after On the Road was first published in 1957, Jack Kerouac wrote a letter to Marlon Brando imploring the actor to consider playing the lead, aka himself, in the seemingly inevitable film adaptation. Brando never wrote back—something about contorting the essential portrait of the Beat Generation into a two-hour film must have rubbed him the wrong way. (Then again, this is the same man who later readily signed on for The Island of Dr. Moreau). Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to the book in 1979 and ever since has actively tried to shepherd a version to the screen, but even he was never able to solve how a camera might capture the faded euphoria of Kerouac's writing. Coppola ultimately hired Walter Salles to give it a whirl, having been impressed by the talented Brazilian director's The Motorcycle Diaries, an ostensibly similar road movie about young Che Guevara. Several years and over $25 million later, Salles has delivered damning evidence that Brando was right to refuse.
The one thing that everyone knows about the Beat Generation is that they loved to move. Kerouac's formative tome, banged out on a single stretch of paper that folded over itself on the floor of his apartment, doesn't only endure as the sub-culture's most expressive chronicle, but it increasingly doubles as its greatest legacy. A wild ode to masculine self-discovery at a time when America still seemed infinite and available for conquest, On the Road spins around a gaggle of young men who spent the years following World War II consumed by a restless search to find themselves.
Dean Moriarty (Hedlund) is the platonic ideal of the Beat Generation, beautiful and blissed out. Low on cash, high on benzedrine, and always circling around his sweet Marylou (Stewart), Dean radiates the wild energy of someone desperately trying to convince you that they're living life right. When Brooklyn boy Sal Paradise (Sam Riley, brilliantly agog as Kerouac's proxy) hears the myth of Dean Moriarty, it's easy to understand why he's so enamored. Dean disappears to Denver and summons Sal with the call to adventure that he's been waiting for. And so Sal grabs his trusty notepad and heads out west to join a wandering band of brothers who keep moving in order not to confront the fact that they're also sons—and in the case of Dean, fathers.
On the Road plays kinda like a jaunty hobo prequel to Almost Famous with Sal as our young writer who embarks on a trip to manifest his destiny, hitching rides on the back of flatbed trucks and working the fields for spare change. Sam Riley is an actor who never shies away from a challenge, and his contained performance nails the remarkably difficult task of making Sal Paradise believable as both a protagonist and a tour guide, the William Miller to Garrett Hedlund's Russell Hammond. The film believes in the evocative power of Riley's raspy voice and searching face, and doesn't suffocate him with voiceover and transparent emotional cues.
Sal Paradise is an unfailingly earnest kid who's enchanted by the lives he encounters, but always at a slight remove from their exuberance. He's smart and sensitive, and from the start you know that he'd sooner diagnose the Beat Generation than commit to them. Riley and Hedlund—who's a revelation here, despite the script's refusal to give him a moment that isn't rooted in either ecstasy or despair—are believably possessed by the spirit of a time that the film is only capable of remembering as an aesthetic. Kristen Stewart also gives a valiant performance as sex incarnate. She has more moans than she does lines, but her sultry and ever-eager Marylou—permanently coated with a thin layer of sweat—reveals the extent to which Dean's lifestyle reduced the people in his life to their most basic functions. It's a thin role, but Stewart's melancholy lust registers as a desperate plea for a generation of men on the road to pull over and grow up.
The trouble is that it's hard to believe in Sal's life on the road when it feels like he's living the whole thing on rails. Screenwriter Jose Rivera reinterprets the elegiacally unmoored story of Sal Paradise's life on the road as a conventional hero's journey, a fatal misstep that reminds you why Kerouac drafted the epochal work of his time in rambling bebop prose and not, say, proper English. Rivera's script is determined to capture the novel's free-wheeling spirit, but it merely obscures a familiar three-act structure in a mess of loosely connected episodes, the characters boomeranging back to their boredom as they flitter around the country. As a result, what ought to feel like a mad requiem for this country's unchecked spirit unspools with the rigidity of a ride through "It's a Small World After All," albeit sadder, sex-crazed, and brimming with better music.
The sweet period sheen of Éric Gautier's cinematography and the snappy jazz of Gustavo Santaolalla's subtle score help On the Road to feel more like a postcard from the Beat Generation than an honest portrait of who they were. Scenes have a feral energy, but Salles struggles to cohere this string of empty incidents into a meaningful narrative. It's especially telling that the film's most riveting moments all find Sal at his typewriter, Sam Riley essentially reading us Kerouac's prose in the year's most expensive audiobook recording. Salles' adaptation is an admirable attempt, but despite his vivid portrayal of a generation on the move, On the Road just can't keep the beat.
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Terrence Howard, Elizabeth Moss
Director: Walter Salles
Writer: Jose Rivera
Producers: Charles Gillibert, Nathanaël Karmitz, Rebecca Yeldham
Rating: R for strong sexual content, drug use and language
Running time: 124 min.
Release date: December 21, 2012 (ltd)