On the Road (***)

This long in the works adaptation of the literary classic manages not to disappoint…

on_the_road_ver12After what feels like just about an eternity, I finally saw ‘On the Road’ back in early October at one of the first screenings post Toronto. This is a film that’s been on the verge of release so long it’s almost become an annual joke between Clayton and myself about including it in predictions at the start of each season. Well, this is the year that we can finally talk about the adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s legendary book and where it stands in the Oscar race. The verdict on the awards front is that it’s a long shot at best in most categories. Aside from that though, this is a pretty good, if difficult, road trip drama with some notably strong acting from Garret Hedlund and Kristen Stewart especially. Sam Riley is very solid too, but those first two really shine. Walter Salles has shot an absolutely beautiful movie and along with scribe Jose Rivera has captured the words of Kerouac about as well as one could have hoped for (by using the original scroll, actually), even dating back to the days of Francis Ford Coppola seeking to adapt the seminal novel. It’s not especially Academy friendly, and hardly perfect, but it’s not something to completely cross off of your lists either. Time will tell in that regard, but this is a flick worth seeing regardless of its potential for Oscar nominations. The movie opens next week and yes, it was worth the wait, even if it took me almost two months to fully formulate a review of it…

For anyone unaware of the plot already, I’ll briefly get into it, but be forewarned right here and now…there’s not a whole lot of plot to begin with, though the book is pretty well represented here. We’re still following the writer Sal Paradise (Riley), a stand-in for Kerouac himself, who sees his life and mind expanded by a friendship with Dean Moriarty (Hedlund) and his free-spirited wife Marylou (Stewart). Sal is an aspiring writer in New York City, while Dean is a former con with charm to spare, not to mention a wife in Marylou who’s open to many forms of experimentation. Their connections, much of which spent literally on the road, are intimate, weighty, and deeply sexual. They’re driving off in search of whatever they can find, be it in the world or themselves. Along the way they come into contact with a whole host of other people, some with similar world views, some with distinctly different ones, including Carlo Marx/Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge), who they spend a decent amount of time with, and Old Bull Lee/William S. Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen). Most of the time, however, they spend their time with each other. If you’re not familiar with the Beat Generation or Post World War II American Literature, you’re not going to become an expert here, but hopefully you’ll catch the essence of what it all meant.

On-The-Road-Movie-Trailer-e1331547999661There’s some real good acting to admire in this film, even if the characters do sometimes hold you at arm’s length in a way. Sam Riley is rather understated most of the time, though he perks up and lets loose at the appropriate moments. He’s often more observational than anything else, which does make sense considering he’s a writer and essentially using these life experience for material. Garret Hedlund overshadows Riley a bit, essaying a character who’s got a real zest for life. I’m not sure ever could have matched what was on the page, but he’s very good at probably better in the role than most would have been. The real acting high point for me is Kristen Stewart though, who does near career best work as the young bride/muse/sex object. It’s a very brave performance and Stewart nails it. Yes she bares all, but the part is about much more than just that. If anyone deserved recognition from this film, it’s her. Tom Sturridge and Viggo Mortensen are lively in supporting turns, while Amy Adams is solid, if unspectacular. Also in the cast we have Kirsten Dunst, Steve Buscemi, Terrence Howard, Alice Braga, and Elisabeth Moss, though none really wowed me. Stewart is the highlight of the cast.

Director Walter Salles and scribe Jose Rivera have again teamed up for a beautiful looking and poetic movie. It’s clearly not an easy movie, and it does often prevent you from really falling for it Salles and Rivera had the herculean task of finding a movie within the book, and while they’re successful, they certainly struggle with the pacing at times. There’s no arguing that cinematography is gorgeous, but the editing and flow of the story is less perfect, resulting in a repetitive feel at times.. It never lost me, but impatient viewers may find themselves drifting at points. A story that has so much writing engrained in its very DNA usually has to go the extra mile to sustain a viewer’s attention, and this flick is no exception. There are rough patches, but by and large Salles and Rivera succeed much more than they fail. This may sound off to some, but Salles has the film at its best when Kristen Stewart is on the screen. It’s both a testament to her only sometimes realized potential and Salles’ skill with the cast, but Stewart is a highlight in just about every way possible.

‘On the Road’ could have wound up as about a dozen different types of adaptations as it bounced from filmmaker to filmmaker, but next Friday audiences will likely be seeing the best version they could have hoped for. The book is of course still better, but this is a very solid translation and in some ways the flaws only make it seem more real. Obviously this isn’t a movie for everyone, and likely will struggle to find real footing, but those who have been looking forward to it will not be disappointed. It may not be an Oscar contender, but it’s a minor miracle that it’s coming out at all, so we should be thankful for that…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!

What do you think?

Film Lover

Written by Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.


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