On the Road, the movie, should have been in theaters months ago, but its release was delayed until just now. Or you could say it should have been in theaters years ago, at least since Francis Coppola acquired the rights to Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel in 1979, but the conditions needed for a successful production just didn’t coalesce. Or, if you feel very protective of the book, a Beat-era milestone often described as unflimable, you could say it never should have been in theaters at all.
But here it is at last, from director Walter Salles, who with writer José Rivera also made The Motorcycle Diaries, and now has cornered the market on retrospective period road movies about pretty young people whose seeking spirits fate them to become generational representatives. Foremost a chronicle of Kerouac’s own North American wayfarings of the late 1940s, Rivera and Salles’ On the Road stars Sam Riley as author stand-in Sal Paradise, an immigrant’s kid and an introvert in need of new possibilities, and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty (standing in for Neal Cassady), Sal’s all-American cowboy muse. Pushing and pulling each other through mutual fatherlessness and wanderlust, they embark on a now-recognizably archetypal adventure of sex and drugs and cross-country driving.
These actors aren’t automatically familiar to all of us, and that’s good, because pre-existing cinematic personas might distract us from pre-existing literary personas. Before this, Riley’s most prominent turn so far was as Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in the black-and-white brooder Control, and Hedlund first became a leading man as the CGI-draped hero of Tron: Legacy. Neither of those movies could be described as plein-air affairs; each had its own manner of glossiness, applied like a shrouding veil. It’s little wonder that Curtis and Hedlund seem mutually and palpably refreshed by the rustic, sunlit pleasures of playing Paradise and Moriarty.
The ladies in these men’s lives include but are not limited to a teen nymph played with refreshing and surprising physicality by Kristen Stewart, and Kirsten Dunst as, eventually, the wised-up mother of Moriarty’s child. Plus, like streetside flickers glimpsed from a cruising car window, shining cameos abound in On the Road, most notably one from Viggo Mortensen in a brief but pretty good William Burroughs pose. In the end it’s a film full of game performances, all of which seem incomplete; this is, after all, a meditation on the human state of feeling unfinished.
Which is to say that as a movie, On the Road doesn’t quite add up. How could it? Making it all up as you go was both a subject and a style for Kerouac, but Rivera and Salles’ film — especially after taking so long to get made, and even longer to get seen — can’t possibly feel like a spontaneous self-invention. Not just because movie production doesn’t really work that way, but also because neither does any literary adaptation, let alone this one. Who can even watch this without already knowing what it has to live up to?
The filmmakers might so easily have been paralyzed with pressure, but they soldiered on as if entirely undaunted. Infused with romantic affection for all it portrays, On the Road does at least approximate the ecstatic condition of its literary source. Characters seem constitutionally averse to cynicism. Scenes unfold in bebop-phrased headlong rushes, or as ricochets between urge and inspiration. For every moment of Sal Paradise soaking up his life experience, and hurrying to scribble it all down, there’s some jump-cut montage of views through a windshield, with apparently endless variations of light and weather and mood. It should be said that these include a mystically hushed and foggy Bay Bridge threshold crossing that will feel familiar to anyone who ever came to Northern California from somewhere else on purpose.
What’s best about it, though, and truest to what the Beat credo has come to mean to us, is that the only real way to know whether this movie is a bore, or just another instance of Kerouac as commodity, or a righteous tribute, or even an epiphany, is to get out there and see for yourself.