The daunting task of turning Jack Kerouac's vaunted book “On the Road” into a movie has eluded filmmakers for 55 years.
The autobiographical 1957 novel is considered a defining work, leading to the birth of a youthful American counterculture — one that rebelled against the conventionality of keeping a job and making a family life.
Brazilian director Walter Salles seems a logical choice to finally tackle “On the Road.” He has visited this territory before. “The Motorcycle Diaries” found a young Che Guevara shaping his worldview by way of free-spirited travels.
This time Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera don't fully overcome some of the problems built into the material. The episodic road trips ramble on. It takes time for them to build into something from which to extract meaning.
Balancing determined free-spirit living and a search for life truths with the price to be paid for rebelling against social norms — and embracing a requisite streak of irresponsibility — can also be dicey. Salles' movie leans more toward the bummer bumps in the long and winding road than joy-filled discovery.
But the period details from 1947-51, when the story takes place, are terrific — cars (a sleek Hudson), clothes (when T-shirts and jeans got their start as the uniform of the young), African-American jazz and other music genres in a soundtrack that elevates the material.
And some deeply affecting moments along the way come courtesy of interesting casting.
Garrett Hedlund has the necessary swagger and sex appeal as Dean Moriarty (real-life Neal Cassady), a juvenile delinquent whose father disappeared at a formative age. Dean hot-wires cars, steals gas and food, marries 16-year-old Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and almost immediately takes up with a more stable Camille (Kirsten Dunst), all the while floating on a cloud of sexual experimentation (both genders), benzadrine, booze and the eternal call of the road.
Trailing along in his wake are the film's narrator, aspiring writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), a stand-in for Kerouac himself, and poet Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), based on the real-life Allen Ginsberg.
Watch: 'On the Road' trailer
Sal, struggling to write while living with his mother in Queens, N.Y., is drawn to charismatic Dean's wild pursuit of truth (“mad to live, mad to talk, burning like a roman candle across the night,” Sal says). Carlo is in love with Dean. Camille and Marylou struggle to understand Dean — or put up with him long enough to tame him.
Stewart is remarkable, producing memorable moments at a New Year's Eve dance frenzy and in uninhibited sexual escapades, sometimes involving the driver of a moving car. Dunst captures the bitter disillusion of a young mother left to pay for Dean's freedom. Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams have a few interesting moments as stand-ins for writer William Burroughs and his spacy partner.
Hedlund and Riley peak in a frenzied montage of hedonism in Mexico late in the movie, after which Sal finally sheds hero-worship and turns all his scribbled notes from the road into a book.
Watching the heartbreak accumulate, I kept thinking of Janis Joplin singing “Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.” Salles' movie begs to differ, toting up the losses until you want to turn away. For me, that happened several road trips before the end.
But not because I was ever bored watching these characters in their epic search for identity and meaning.
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