Making a screen version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road has been an elusive fantasy for numerous filmmakers in the 55 years since the Beat classic was published. Brazilian director Walter Salles, the man who finally got to realize the dream, has done a respectable job of it, and at moments better than that, though the film rarely busts out to provide the sort of heady pleasures it depicts.
Opening in France and some other territories on the heels of its Cannes Film Festival premiere, but not in the United States until autumn via IFC and Sundance Selects, this France-Brazil co-production is fronted by a very attractive cast and is highly promotable to a sophisticated public familiar with the material. Still, the film’s ultimate success will hinge upon whether younger audiences can connect with this vibrantly visualized period piece about the birth of the American counterculture.
Kerouac fantasized about co-starring as himself opposite Marlon Brando’s Dean Moriarty, and several directors — most prominently Francis Ford Coppola, an executive producer here — wrestled with an adaptation. Set over a few years beginning in 1947, On the Road is the story of youthful searching, yearning and striving for experience and truth by a handful of hipsters in their early 20s who, very much against the grain of a conformist period, eagerly embraced drugs, experimental sex, black culture and jazz, and life outside the yoke of steady work and conventional family constraints. In modern parlance, they pioneered an alternative lifestyle; the fact that they looked scruffy and wore T-shirts and jeans makes the characters onscreen resemble normal kids anytime from the late-‘60s until today.
Kerouac famously wrote the book in a three-week creative spasm on a single 120-foot scroll, and Salles has attempted to find cinematic equivalents to the author’s fluid, jazzy, quicksilver prose. The colors are intense, looks and gestures are fleetingly caught, rhythms are varied to convey highs and lows of perception and sensation. A feeling of great fidelity to and high regard for the material courses through Jose Rivera’s adaptation and Salles’ directorial attitude (the pair effectively warmed up for this road trip with The Motorcycle Diaries eight years ago).
But there are several barriers to representing On the Road in effective movie terms. First is the lack of dramatic structure; the book is about several journeys, each eventful in its own way, but it remains fitfully episodic. The filmmakers deal with this by making a climax out of Kerouac finally breaking through his creative block and writing the book, but the lonely spectacle of an author typing has never proved cinematically interesting and still doesn’t here.
Furthermore, while Dean Moriarty represents the essential life force, the mad one who burns like a Roman candle, much of his Benzedrine-and-booze-fueled behavior comes off as just reckless and irresponsible; onscreen, anyway, he seems more suitable to be envied rather than admired.
And lingering over the entire enterprise is the question of whether it will be clear to uninitiated and young audiences what the characters are rebelling against. Aside from Kerouac’s briefly seen mother and family, the “straight” world is scarcely glimpsed — and nor should it be, as this was not an intention of the book. But the film provides little sense of how contrary and counter to the norm the characters’ thinking and behavior were in the context of the time.
After burying his father, the Kerouac figure Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is taken to meet wildman Neal Cassady stand-in Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), who answers the door stark naked, having been interrupted during sex with his saucy teenage wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Lots of voiceover, along with shots of Sal vacantly staring at his typewriter and toting around Swann’s Way, accompanies the aspiring writer’s eager embrace of life’s exotic but hardly inaccessible stimulations, beginning with New York jazz clubs and drugs and, after heading to Denver, some sexual sharing with the supercharged Dean and Marylou.
Athletically built, tousle-haired and up for anything, Dean attracts men and women, comes and goes as he pleases and abides by no rules; no sooner does he divorce Marylou than he marries the more stable Camille (Kirsten Dunst), with whom he starts having babies, even as he returns to Marylou for further travels and fun.
Although the story is Sal/Kerouac’s, the star part is Dean, and Hedlund has the allure for it; among the men here, he’s the one you always watch, and the actor effectively catches the character’s impulsive, thrill-seeking, risk-taking, responsibility-avoiding personality.
As embodied by a solid, if inherently reactive Riley, Sal is good-looking too, but in a more boyish, innocent way. Intimidated by Dean just as he idolizes him, he has the guts to follow far down an uncharted road where most others wouldn’t. He sometimes takes detours, among them an abridged romance with a Mexican girl (Alice Braga) while picking cotton with migrants in California, and continues to put in time trying to write at his mother’s modest home in Queens.
But it’s the group adventures that count the most, and Salles has captured some of them quite evocatively: A wild New Year’s Eve party where Dean and Marylou dance in a sexy frenzy; a calm and weird stay at the Louisiana home of the William Burroughs character, Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen, very fine); another sexy scene in which Marylou simultaneously pleasures Dean and Sal (out of camera range) as they all ride naked in the front seat of their car; Dean’s escape from domesticity with Camille as he joins Sal at a club to see Slim Gaillard, and a wild sojourn south of the border for mind-blowing weed and Mexican whores.
Less effective are Dean’s quest for his long-lost father in Denver, the windy ramblings of Allen Ginsberg equivalent Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) and an out-of-left-field episode involving a fastidious gay man (an unbilled Steve Buscemi) keen to buy Dean’s services.
While the film’s dramatic impact is variable, visually and aurally it is a constant pleasure. Eric Gautier’s cinematography is endlessly resourceful, making great use of superb and diverse locations (including New York, Canada, New Mexico, California, Louisiana, Mexico and Argentina). The cars, beginning with the central Hudson, are terrific, as are the décor, clothes and wide range of music. The film was researched to the limit, and it shows.
Stewart, selected for Marylou five years ago on the basis of her striking debut in Into the Wild, is perfect in the role, takes off her clothes more than once and nearly always seems to be breaking a sweat, which kicks the sexiness quotient up high. Amy Adams is frumpy and into a mysterious zone of her own as Old Bull’s odd wife, while Elisabeth Moss is obliged to carp and complain as the severe fellow’s unsuitable house guest.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (in competition)
Opens: May 23 (MK2 in France); IFC/Sundance Selects (in U.S.)
Production: Jerry Leider Company, MK2 Films, Videofilmes
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Danny Morgan, Alice Braga, Marie-Ginette Guay, Elisabeth Moss, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen
Director: Walter Salles
Screenwriter: Jose Rivera, based on the novel by Jack Kerouac
Producers: Nathanael Karmitz, Charles Gillibert, Rebecca Yeldham, Roman Coppola
Executive producers: Francis Ford Coppola, John Williams, Jerry Leider, Tessa Ross, Arpad Busson
Director of photography: Eric Gautier
Production designer: Carlos Conti
Costume designer: Danny Glicker
Editor: Francois Gedigier
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla