That elusive lightning is the electricity in the hopped-up prose of "On the Road," Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel, which 10 years after its publication inspired countless stoned hippie odysseys to Haight-Ashbury and beyond. But, can prose that snaps and sizzles be interpreted into a zapping movie?
The beauty and precision of Eric Gautier's cinematography give everything, from the great outdoors to the cramped dingy bars of late- 1940s New York to a Mexican brothel, a surreal visual intensity that makes it look both archetypal and ‘fresh out of the box’ new.
It is useful to remember that the restless seeking chronicled in the novel started two years after World War II, in 1947, when the United States was a much poorer, more innocent country. The movie does a terrific job of evoking an explosive, optimistic sense of possibility as the country, in the flush of triumph, flexed its aggregate muscle and set about reinventing itself.
The film is one of the few movies about an author to resist (however not always) the cliché picture of the touchy writer at his typewriter conjuring the muse as he looks profoundly into space. Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Kerouac's alter ego, steadily takes notes during his adventures, and his astutely picked voice-over readings of short passages from the novel fuse with the jagged visual rhythms.
"On the Road" has a super hot vintage jazz soundtrack in which the music of Charlie Parker and Slim Gaillard splendidly distils the hyperkinetic frenzy of hot-wired characters on a literary bender jumping out of their skin from Benzedrine, coffee, alcohol, and marijuana.
Also, now for the not all that great news: If there is little to actively dislike about "On the Road," there is a great deal to be disappointed in. It's debatable whether anybody could play its sexy, near-mythic pied piper, Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), aka Neal Cassady, the charismatic, free-spirited hipster about whom every devoted reader of "On the Road" has a personal fantasy.
Mr. Hedlund, who was in the film version of "Friday Night Lights" and in "Troy," has the all-American great looks and easygoing charm for the role but radiates none of the feral danger associated with a desperate thrill seeker compelled to push limits. And, a subplot in which, Dean searches for his father, is so perfunctorily dropped into the film, it is emotionally weightless.
The role would have been ideal for the young Marlon Brando, who Kerouac hoped might play Dean in a movie opposite himself as Sal. Other conceivable candidates include the youthful Robert De Niro, Ed Harris and perhaps, quite possibly, Ryan Gosling. But, Mr. Hedlund is simply too wholesome a screen presence to play a maniacal rebel.
Mr. Riley, who portrayed Joy Division's Ian Curtis in "Control," is even all the more gravely miscast as Sal. In addition to lacking Kerouac's dark movie-star looks, he radiates little of the inner fire that crackled through Kerouac's written work.
"On the Road" is truly a romantic paean to a charismatic madman told by his worshipful acolyte and chronicler as they befuddle the continent over several years. In the book, character development and storytelling are auxiliary to impacts of supercharged written work that is what might as well be called jazz improvisation. But since so little of that language is in the film, Sal develops as an earnest, aloof, almost drippy disciple more worried about gathering material for a novel than with living high in the moment.
The sex and drugs Kerouac described with a touch of thrilled revelation in the novel go over in the film as the same old sex and drugs that lost their mystery in the mass hippie freak-out of the 1960s. I would much preferably envision it then see all the banal mechanics. The film doesn't try to summon the conflict between the lives of these bohemian wild men and the square America of the 1940s and '50s.
On a visit to New Orleans, Old Bull Lee, aka William S. Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen, miscast), puts in an appearance. Carlo Marx, aka Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge), is a moist, moony poet captivated by Dean. In the cameo roles of the ill-treated women in Dean's life, Kristen Stewart smolders with sullen, defiant sensuality as she tries to keep up with the boys, and Kirsten Dunst reacts to Dean's betrayals with outraged indignation. Since these female impediments to Dean's selfish pleasure seeking are far more real on the screen than in the book, his romantic mystique is lethally discolored in the move. It all seems — dare I say it? — Of little consequence.
“On The Road” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has sexual situations, strong language, and nudity.