By its very nature, Jack Kerouac's autobiographical "On The Road" is an episodic sojourn of self-discovery that doesn't really lend itself to the film medium. Since its publication in 1957, many have eyed the possibility of a big screen interpretation (and, indeed, several seventies road trip classics owe a debt to it), but the iconic book has never made it past the screenplay stage. Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) has owned the rights to "On The Road" since 1980 and he's finally served up a version under the hand of director Walter Salles (he did the great Brazilian drama Central Station). Together, I'd say this handsome and well made film is both surprisingly faithful to the source material but also somewhat aloof from an emotional standpoint. Is it the book? Absolutely not. So those expecting a literal translation from page to screen will always have something to complain about. But for my money, the film does capture the spirit of this journey. At times riveting, at times perplexing, the movie is loaded with a veritable "who's who" from a casting standpoint. Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Elizabeth Moss, and Kirsten Dunst, as some of the more recognizable names, all take relatively small parts in the overall picture. But the movie primarily focuses on a tangled romantic trio portrayed by Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart.
Sam Riley plays aspiring writer (and Kerouac stand-in) Sal Paradise. Living on the fringes of the artistic community, his existence is rocked by his introduction to the charming Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). He is fascinated by this free spirit and inspired by him. Moriarty represents the true freedom of America, open both emotionally and sexually to the experiences life has to offer. As they embark on a road trip across the country, they will share in love, drugs, and brushes with the law. Rebellion, adventure, freedom. All of the things needled to fuel Riley's creative spirit (he is journaling throughout) are provided on this odyssey. As I mentioned, it's all very episodic. Some of the encounters resonate more than others, but they all combine to form the bigger picture. As much as I wanted to feel connected to this story, however, I maintained somewhat of a distance. Riley, as the core of the picture, stays more of a voyeur even in the thick of things. His recitation of events is clinical and even detached. So, truthfully, I never got quite as close as I wanted.
For me, "On The Road" is ultimately sold more on its performances than on its story. Sam Riley plays a solid lead. If you like him and you haven't seen his riveting work in 2007's "Control," don't miss it. Stewart, also, makes the most of this change-of-pace role. Before becoming an international icon (for good or bad) in the Twilight franchise, the actress seemed content with indie work. It's good to see her get back to her roots. But the movie's success or failure hinges on the work of Hedlund. As Dean Moriarty, he is the catalyst and driving force behind almost all of the film's drama. You must believe he has the charm and charisma to enchant and frustrate almost every other character. And I thought he did. With a low key energy, he never overplays either. The relationship between Riley and Hedlund is the primary factor in this adaptation, and I think it is both fascinating and provocative. In the end, the movie wrapped this pivotal pairing up rather unsatisfactorily for my taste. I guess I never got close enough to Riley, never made a real emotional connection, so his evolution at the end of the picture felt both rushed and unexplained. Overall, though, I think "On The Road" is worth a look. KGHarris, 8/13.