starring Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen
screenplay by Jose Rivera, based on the novel by Jack Kerouac
directed by Walter Salles
by Angelo Muredda "You goin' some place, or just goin'?" a fellow traveller asks Sam Riley's Sal Paradise in the long-gestating, still-undigested On the Road, Walter Salles's handsomely-mounted but stiff adaptation of Jack Kerouac's hipster Bible. While that's a dangerous line to adapt in such an aimless movie, it isn't even the most unfortunate moment of meta-commentary within the first ten minutes. Consider Sal's panicked voiceover about the text he's spinning out, ostensibly the same one we're trudging through: "And what is there to talk about exactly? The book I'm not writing? The inspiration I don't feel? Even the beer's flat." What, indeed? What's left to say about a project that insists on reviewing itself at regular checkpoints and keeps finding its inspiration wanting?
The beer certainly is flat, but credit Salles and production designer Carlos Conti for otherwise stocking the film with just the right amount of postwar American tchotchkes to make us feel at home. Road movies typically live or die on the strength of the travellers and their changing environments, and On the Road is an absolute wash on the first front. Riley, so good as Ian Curtis in Control, is too taxed by his problems with nailing an American accent to bother giving much of a performance here; at best, this is a passable table read. Garrett Hedlund doesn't fare much better as the Neal Cassady stand-in Dean Moriarty, which is deadly for an adaptation of a book that hinges on Dean's manic charisma to get from moment to moment, from state to state. Sal keeps telling us that Dean is a freewheeling genius, but we don't see it: Hedlund is charming enough yet too buttoned-up to be anyone's messiah, making his diminished final state as Sal's fortunes rise indistinguishable from his salad days.
That the all-American locales Sal and Dean careen through are so fleshed-out by comparison is both a boon and a serious problem. This is an impossibly pretty film, gorgeously lensed by Olivier Assayas's DP Eric Gautier, who caught the same off-postcard beauty for Che Guevara's road trip in Salles's The Motorcycle Diaries. But this lyrical photography, though consistent with the delectable contemporary editions of Kerouac's book covers, is out of step with the text, not least Sal's pronouncement that he cares only for "the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time." Riley's sleepy delivery aside, there's no madness in Salles's fastidious design, and, save for Kristen Stewart's gamely rumpled performance as both men's underage lover Marylou, no desire, either. When Dean bellows that he can "smell the marijuana" in their late jaunt through Mexico (actually Arizona), you wonder what he's smoking.
Stewart's surprisingly vigorous sex scenes with both men--still no match for Robert Pattinson's extended prostate exam opposite Emily Hampshire in Cosmopolis--feel more like remnants from the movie Salles wished he was making than anything integral to the one before him. To be fair, the overall prudishness isn't all on him. Kerouac's novel is arguably more genteel than it lets on--a tale of drifters who have to go home again sometime, at least to collect the advance and write the book about the whole ordeal. This is the sort of movie that cues up a jazz number when it wants to be loose, throws to feverish black faces when it wants to be authentic, and defaults on Stewart's stringy hair and sweaty mug when it wants to signify weary youth ambling through life. Slumming is its method as much as its content, but you could say the same about Kerouac's novel. Still, pity about the flat beer.