Jack Kerouac‘s “On the Road” has been heralded for decades: an important novel, a cultural signifier, a sociological landmark, a cracking good read. It’s also been considered “unfilmable” — but now Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Dark Water“) brings the novel to the screen, and “The Motorcycle Diaries” turns out to be a pretty good template for understanding how Salles has shot his adaptation. “On the Road,” like ‘Diaries,’ is scenic and episodic, full of youth’s passion but with a shade of the future yet to come dimming the brightness of its vision, as a charismatic young man travels with another young man, saying little but watching everything along the way.
If there’s one thing that wounds “On the Road,” it’s that the film is full of things — having sex, doing drugs, being free — that are far more enjoyably experienced by one’s self as opposed to watching other people enjoy them on screen; even when the free-living, debauched events on screen are at their highest –or lowest, like when the group smashes medical inhalers to make Benzedrine tea, or when a heroin addict nods off with his child in his comatose arms — you still feel pressed against the glass on the other side of the shop window from the goodies.
Sam Riley is Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s stand-in for himself in the novel; Garret Hedlund is Dean Moriarty, based on Neal Cassady, the freewheeling and irresponsible sensation-seeker who pulls Sal into his wake. Riley has to carry the burden of being the viewpoint character, a position that always seems more passive on film than it does in print; people expecting the charismatic fireworks of his work in “Control” will be disappointed. But as Hedlund’s previous work — except for the wretched “Tron: Legacy” — has demonstrated, he’s a young actor with charisma and skill, making Dean both engaging and reprehensible.
Kristen Stewart is Dean’s paramour Marylou, and seeing her liberated from the silly straitjacket of servile moping she has to perform in the “Twilight” films is a huge relief. (A friend joked that Stewart’s character’s bed-hopping, nudity and overall sexual licentiousness were just the universe compensating her for all the chaste charmlessness she has to embody as Bella in the “Twilight” films.) And Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams play the book’s stand-ins for William S. Burroughs and Jane Vollmer with drugged-up grit and gravel, a cautionary tale about to happen. (A spacey-eyed Adams gets the film’s best non-sequitur when the pilgrims drop in for a visit, brandishing a broom and heading for the yard: “Excuse me: lizards”).
And so we watch our hobohemians drive and steal and dance and screw looking for “IT,” their highest point of alive-ness and cool, all of it beautifully shot. And yet you can’t help but wish that Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera had focused less on the stories in the book and more on the story of the book — its writing, its reception, the publisher making Kerouac change the names of the real parties concerned and his edits, the 6-year gap between its being written and its being published. Cinematographer Eric Gautier (“Into the Wild,” “A Christmas Tale“) does incredible work, but after a while the film feels like any other roadtrip — no matter how beautiful the scenery flickering by through the window, eventually you just want to get out of the goddamn car. Salles may have pulled off the achievement of faithfully adapting Kerouac’s novel, but as episodes blur and bleed between each other with scenery as punctuation, you might find yourself wishing for a little less literary fidelity and a little more cinematic storytelling. [B]