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.