An eternal fountain of adolescence,
The greatest movies figure it out, visually and emotionally, and as it has been said, the noblest use of a movie camera is to capture the moment across a human face when a mind is being changed by something, or someone. The vagabonds of "On the Road" perpetually change their Benzedrine-addled minds about where to be, who they are, why they're alive. So while Kerouac's odyssey lacks conventional narrative or novelistic beats (though it comes with plenty of the other kind), the restlessness of the prose has its own cinematic allure.
For decades, filmmakers have tried to secure the screen rights and figure out how to make a satisfying picture out of Kerouac's postcards from the edge, the middle and the bottom of his nomadic experiences knocking around with drifter Neal Cassady; his young wife, LuAnne Henderson, hungry for whatever's around the bend; the dubious but colorful mentor William S. Burroughs; the poet and provocateur
At one point
Can an adaptation of an iconic yet allegedly unfilmable novel yield a failure and a success in one? I think so. Salles' answer to Kerouac's material, shaped by "Motorcycle Diaries" screenwriter and playwright Jose Rivera, is faithful, which is neither a virtue or a vice. It's long on atmosphere, alert to the shifting dynamics of the characters Kerouac created out of those he knew.
It's even longer on a creamy romantic vision of these careless, thoughtless, thoughtful romantics, running in circles in a circular story about people who never find what they seek. Kerouac called that one, back in '48. Often gorgeous, Salles' "On the Road" doesn't really work in dramatic terms. And yet it's worth seeing, to see how close — and, in flashes, how persuasively evocative — the director and his actors come to capturing the lightning in the bottle.
Sam Riley of "Control" plays the narrator, the Kerouac stand-in Sal Paradise.
The most effective scene in "On the Road" stood out in the original, somewhat longer Cannes festival cut and remains the standout in the current, shorter version. It's
Riley has the leading role, and he's pretty good (though the English actor's American dialect for Sal is a little insistent). These observational characters, however, tend to voice-over a lot, and while it's the logical way to go with a book written from this character's perspective, Sal never springs to life. What's missing from the script, chiefly, is a kind of toughness. It's a lovely film in many ways. It's also soft. And half the time, approximately, Salles' brand of romanticism works.
Contrary to the general notion that you fall in love with Kerouac's "On the Road" at a young age or not at all, I tried, twice, to enter the novel, once in my teens, again in my early 20s, and couldn't get the hang of it. I had all the squaresville reactions: Too messy, too indulgent, too repetitive. Then I read it a year ago, in preparation for the world premiere of the film, and the insane momentum of the thing worked for me. I wish the film had more of it: The current, abridged cut plays like a highlights reel, without much breathing room between refills and reckonings. But Salles and his actors, particularly Stewart, find a kind of fluid motion and freedom that periodically makes "On the Road" make sense and makes it feel alive.
Call it a successful failure. Some movies worth seeing are like that.