Cannes Review: Beat Classic 'On The Road' Comes To The Screen In Lustrous-But-Long-Winded Fashion

Reviews
by James Rocchi
May 23, 2012 7:29 AM
15 Comments
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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]

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15 Comments

  • aquila18 | May 28, 2012 12:14 PMReply

    You could have left your thoughts of Twilight out. Twilight is not meant to win oscars, it's just for fun, a little escapism and enjoyment. That's why its not a Cannes. Your constant criticism of the films says you don't really know how to have either. I would have found your review of On the Road more credible without those remarks.

  • KSpew | May 25, 2012 1:35 AMReply

    Wow if you had spent less time dissing Twilight you may have actually said something about K. Stewart's performance. Also nothing on Dunst? Oh I guess she doesn't bring the hits to your site.

  • Arch | May 24, 2012 7:29 AMReply

    Just saw a review on Yahoo (The french version. Granted not a top-notch reference) ... they said the movie had to be projected in two theater at the same time. In at least one of them there was no applause, people sleeping and a lot of people going out before the end. The review in short is : beautiful people traveling in a car with sex sex and sex ...
    All in all it seems reviews range from tepid to good (with a few very bad ones ... the funniest of course) most of them agree that it has nothing in common with the book ... not just because of the story but because of what Kevin said.

  • Kevin | May 23, 2012 10:47 PMReply

    I liked this a bit less than James, probably would've gone with a C. Felt overly long, aimless but most crucially, missing the magic and poetry that won over so many. Also completely missing is the clash of culture between the Beats and rest of America. Performances were good though.

  • jingmei | May 23, 2012 10:20 PMReply

    This film is not suitable for lightweights or typical Twilight fans. Digging this awesome film at least need getting touch of the knowledge of the source or interests about Beat Generation, with the true sense of rebelling related with sex, drugs, freedom, etc.. The hot Brazilian director Walter Salles led gang of low profile et talented mature young ensemble cast to create the fucking cool ambience. Look forward to this film, with the in-depth portraits by the actors including the mature Kristen Stewart, especially the performances of my beloved Sam Riley, et Garret Hedlund, they both get sexy voices as I felt.

  • Mandy | May 23, 2012 4:58 PMReply

    "...things -- having sex, doing drugs, being free -- that are far more enjoyably experienced by one's self..."
    Why coin such an unnecessary and awkward construction as "one's self" when the word you wanted already exists: "oneself."

  • gabr | May 23, 2012 3:09 PMReply

    I'm more curious than excited about the film, have to say. John Tytell has written a good history on Kerouac and the making of the Beat Generation, which is now an e-single. A great read, for those interested: http://goo.gl/HS2f1

  • DG | May 23, 2012 12:34 PMReply

    ..."you might find yourself wishing for a little less literary fidelity and a little more cinematic storytelling".

    I don't think Salles & Coppola had the license to rewrite the story given it's cult/Beat classic status. The Beats & devotees of the book are the only audience they need to connect with.

  • bonzob | May 23, 2012 2:48 PM

    Ugh. The idea that certain texts are too important to change when adapting them from one medium to another is why so many adaptations are so lacking.

    Devotees of the book should want a good movie, not simply a scene by scene recreation of the book. What works on the page doesn't always work on the screen.

  • [A] | May 23, 2012 12:06 PMReply

    So.....you like drugs? How....hip

  • Huffy | May 23, 2012 10:21 AMReply

    Great novels almost never make truly great movies simply because they usually take full advantage of the literary medium and lose much of their potency when transplanted to film, which by all means is a radically different medium. In my opinion you need a guy like Kubrick, a director who does his own thing faithfulness be damned, to make certain books work.

  • Eowyn | May 23, 2012 9:02 AMReply

    Sounds like pretty tepid praise. The book IS unfilmable. On the Road is more about Kerouac's prose and the atmosphere and feeling he evokes. Otherwise, yes, it's just a random set of situations with people listening to jazz and taking drugs. Also-nothing on Kirsten Dunst's performance? From the tweets coming out of Cannes, this got mixed to negative reviews.

  • cc1988 | May 23, 2012 8:40 AMReply

    so its the book in movie form, well thats what all the die hard fans wanted!

  • Tom | May 23, 2012 8:32 AMReply

    How is Kirsten Dunst?

  • Greg | May 23, 2012 8:13 AMReply

    So as a faithful adaptation of the source material it hits the mark?

    Excellent, exactly what I was hoping for.

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