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Cannes 2012: Walter Salles and Sprawling Cast Recreate Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road,' Which is Cruising for an NC-17

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 23, 2012 at 11:58AM

"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.
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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.

This article is related to: Festivals, Festivals, Cannes Film Festival, Festivals


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.