Image C+ Sound A- Extras D+
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?
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.
On the Road is one of those movies that looks better on disc in trailer form than in its feature-length incarnation. The 2.35:1, 1080p transfer doesn't pop, dig? The picture was shot in 35mm but subsequently sapped of grain and fine detail, drained of colour and deep black, and alternately stained cyan and tobacco depending on the season being represented. My hunch is that these issues rest with the DI--especially the dearth of grain, because the presentation doesn't have that waxiness I associate with post facto DVNR; when grain does poke through, in dimly-lit scenes, it has a peculiar texture, vaguely reminiscent of mosquito noise. While the diffuse, almost milky image occasionally complements the smoke-filled haze in which these characters exist, it's difficult for me to believe it's everything the filmmakers intended; at the very least, the allotted disc space could be more generous--packing 124 minutes onto a single layer just doesn't cut it these days. Still, it's better than the Canadian alternative: no Blu-ray. Comparatively lucid, the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track delivers a modest though by no means ineffectual mix with surprising might. The walls of jazz that spring up are technically dazzling.
Extras are limited to On the Road's theatrical trailer plus an 8-minute portion of deleted scenes (both HD and DD 5.1), none of them containing the Bella Swan nudity that was cut from the film yet lives on in Google-cache memory. Instead, find more of Dean the human oil spill doing Dean-like things, such as terrifying two seminarian passengers with his speeding. He also reads Swann's Way some more. HiDef trailers for Love and Honor, The Loneliest Planet (which didn't even get a Blu-ray release, making this a tease), How to Survive a Plague, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and Something in the Air cue up on startup of the Sundance Selects platter.