Like a Karate Kid movie without The Crane, Walter Salles’ ”On the Road” would lose its footing – or should that be thumbs? – without it’s astutely-cast leads.
As those wild literary heroes of Jack Kerouac’s classic beatnik novel, Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen ‘Twilight’ Stewart burn rubber as Sal, Moriarty and Marylou, respectively, in what’s going to be the acting calling card for a couple of them in the times to come. They’re quite simply, magnificent.
But the film itself? Not fuelled with the kind of muffler-charging gas it should’ve been.
Jack Kerouac’s seminal pseudo-autobiography tells of Sal Paradise (Riley), a rebel without a map that’s determined to see as much road and rail as he can in a lifetime. The poet and author hits the tar with little purpose other than to have fun – cue the group sex, illegal drugs, wild parties and occasional, meek criminal activity – and bumps into an array of interesting and diverse folks along the way, including soon-constant travel companions Moriarty (Hedlund) and one of the charmer’s many flames, Mary-Lou (Kristen Stewart), a free-bird with an ‘anything goes’ attitude.
A capable cast of thesps, including Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Tom Sturridge, Terrence Howard and an excellent Kirsten Dunst, breathe life into some of the other human landmarks along the way.
Giving off sort-of ‘phoned in’ vibe, largely because it lacks the bohemian punch of Kerouac’s book, and doesn’t dare go as batty as it should’ve to fully solidify the wild times of the films central characters, ”On the Road”’s main major flaw would seem to be the anointment of Motorcycle Diaries’ Salles.
The filmmaker doesn’t invest as much into his directing here as the actors do their performances – Stewart, in her bravest performance to date, will win praise for her turn as the loose lass (and she’s not shy either, getting about in the buff in a couple of scenes)- and Salles’ straight-shooting approach derails the adaptation of the legendary memoir. Despite Francis Ford Coppola’s producing eye overseeing the production, Salles still managed to get away with directing the thing without a bounce of energy or a clap of imagination. In short, he needed to take a cue a from his superbly enthused artistes who all seem to be – excuse the pun – on the same page.
Having said that, ”On the Road” was always going to be a very challenging book to adapt for the big screen – it’s definitely not the kind of thing people rush to see, either – and the fact that someone’s managed to actually do it is an achievement in itself.