Film Review: ‘On the Road’

KStew and Garrett Hedlund (with Sam Riley in the back) star in the adaptation of "On the Road." Credit: Gregory Smith
Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund (with Sam Riley in the back) star in the adaptation of “On the Road.”
Credit: Gregory Smith

‘On the Road’
Director: Walter Salles
Stars: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

Conceptually speaking, wanting to make a movie out of “On the Road” — or anything by Jack Kerouac, for the matter — is to miss the point. Its pleasures are purely (or at least mostly) literary: it’s about the drive and playfulness of the cascading Beat prose, itself as free and infused with wanderlust as the characters within. Despite this, film versions have been in the works since 1957, when Kerouac himself pleaded with Marlon Brando to play Dean Moriarty, with the author himself to play his own stand-in character, Sal Paradise. The one that actually got made, by Walter Salles (“The Motorcyle Diaries”), hasn’t had great reception; it was denied major awards, and only now opens outside of New York and L.A., where it first played in December. It’s not bad, actually, and not just for a film that never needed to exist.

Sam Riley, the mousy Ian Curtis of “Control,” plays Sal, our audience surrogate. He’s bland, as tabula rasas (evidently) must be, but that’s mostly okay as Dean is played, in what should be a star-making role, with charismatic swagger by Garrett Hedlund, who himself served boring surrogate duty in “Tron: Legacy.” The two travel spend their days zooming around the country, hitting up the accomplished all-star supporting cast, from Viggo Mortensen’s Old Bull Lee (read: William S. Burroughs) to Kristen Stewart’s disappearing-reappearing Marylou. Stewart is a sometimes actual actress, but her biggest accomplishment here — apart from an unprintable act already screengrabbed by the internet — is not being enough of a presence to prove distracting.

Thirteen minutes have been snipped since “On the Road”’s Cannes debut, and the most film’s most admirable trait — after Hedlund — is its speed. The plot, such as there is one, is purely episodic, the arc, when it’s finally noticeable, simply about a splintering friendship as one pal “matures” while the other ages into decaying bohemianism. But the thing moves: the scenes are short and sometimes propulsive, afraid to stick in one spot for too long, and afraid to bore its audience with potentially toxic Beat-ness. It’s not an equivalent to Kerouac’s prose, but neither is it a generic celebration of the movement it would help foster. The perspective is Sal’s, reflecting on a wasted youth he’s glad he outgrew but misses anyway, struggling with a strand of survivor’s guilt for daring to make it out alive. The retrospective, critical tone gives the film some kick — Kerouac’s original adaptation would have been disastrous — but even with the ideal Dean this is still defensible mostly because it could have been worse.


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