“On the Road” is a two hour and 17-minute recreation of Jack Kerouac’s seminal 1957 novel. It’s a serious thoughtful gorgeously mounted period art film and American travelogue, carefully researched and painstakingly crafted. Walter Salles and writer Jose Rivera, the team behind “The Motorcycle Diaries,” succeeded where many failed, over the three decades since producer Francis Ford Coppola optioned the property.
What made it so difficult? Well, it’s expensive to go to multiple period locations with a huge cast. And what have these historical literary figures to tell us now? Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg had an enormous impact on the culture, spawning the Beat Generation which led in turn to the 60s counterculture. They, like many in my parents’ generation, were rebelling against the conservative mores of the time, and jazz, booze, sex, misogyny, creativity and irresponsibility were all part of the picture.
Rivera and Salles ran a four-week boot camp for the actors in Montreal, where they steeped themselves in books and films and met and interviewed many survivors and children of the Beat circle. Salles stresses that he’s showing the formative years before the Beats came to life. The script is thoughtful and rigorously structured against the real criss-crossing itinerary, which the filmmakers re-traced.
And yet as fascinating and authentic as the movie is, it all comes down to Dean Moriarty. There’s a reason why Kerouac (embodied in “On the Road” as writer Sal, played by Sam Riley, star of “Control”) and Tom Wolfe (“The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”) devoted so many pages writing about Neal Cassady (aka Moriarty). He was a charismatic, larger-than-life speed-freak babblemouth who mesmerized the men and women around him, from multiple wives (the first two are well-played by Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst, respectively) to poet Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge plays “Carlo”), with whom Moriarty/Cassady had a sexual relationship (as depicted in the less successful “Howl”).
The movie goes farther than the book–and is cruising into NC-17 territory in the thrusting department– in showing the many ways these friends and lovers shared sexual partners, often in a group. Stewart is especially strong in a supporting role as an earthily sexual teenager who thinks nothing of giving hand jobs to both Dean and Jack at the same time in the front seat of the car.
But it’s a lot to ask for any actors to take on these well-known figures, and other movies such as “Heartbeat” have struggled depicting these characters. (Neal Cassady appears in Alex Gibney’s “Magic Trip,” in Ken Kesey’s footage from the actual Merry Pranksters bus tour.) Garrett Hedlund (“Tron: Legacy”) is a strong physically commanding actor with the edgy musculature and charm that Cassady had, but something is missing. And while it’s always thankless to play the writer-observer role, Sam Riley commands the screen without having to say much. “I was a young writer trying to take off,” he says in one of many bits of voice-over narration.
Salles has put in eight years on this film, and prepared for it by making the similarly episodic literary journey “The Motorcycle Diaries.” The two films are of a piece and are not easily dismissed, even if they are long and meandering. “On the Road” should be seen, especially by younger viewers who may find this slice of American cultural history fascinating. Typically, however, it’s more likely that adults will show.
Just before the festival, IFC/Sundance Selects paid a larger advance than usual, fighting off considerable competition to pick up the film, which is not overtly commercial despite its starry cast (including Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams in cameos as Old Bull Lee–read William S. Burroughs–and his live-in girlfriend), and will push it hard in theaters. “It will be the company’s biggest push in years and a top priority,” said one IFC/Sundance Selects exec.
Is “On the Road” an Oscar contender? While the Academy will appreciate its craftsmanship, critics will be mixed. The cinematography and costumes are stunning. The film will likely hit the fall fest circuit. But it needs a masterful Oscar campaign (which is not IFC’s stock in trade), superb reviews and prizes along the way for its two main actors, Hedlund and Riley, to reach that level, and I don’t see that happening.