Cannes Film Festival
Jack Kerouac and his pals were some of the most interesting people to walk the planet in the 1950s. They did as they wanted, lived in the moment, and thankfully had the memory and the brains to put it all onto paper for their adherents in future generations to admire as a holy text. So why on earth is the film adaptation of his seminal text, “On the Road,” such a bore to sit through?
That’s the question that kept going through my mind as I went sporadically in and out of sleep during the film. (I would not have nodded off back in the States, but the feeling of boredom and tedium definitely would still be in the air.) Granted, I haven’t read the source material, but the general spirit of liveliness just seemed totally absent, replaced by the same ennui that hipsters rebel against. I’m now caught in a conundrum: should I read the book to redeem and perhaps better understand Walter Salles’ film, or is my lack of enthusiasm an indication that reading Kerouac’s prose would just be an exercise in futility?
Even “Howl,” clunky pastiche as it is, proved that bottling up the spirit of the Beatniks isn’t impossible, and it can even be done in a roundabout, indirect manner. Jose Rivera’s script is able to pull a coherent and fairly compelling narrative from Kerouac’s novel while still maintaining some of its winding, dawdling structure. Though I’m sure fans of the book would have been angered, I think he could have excised several sideshow stories for the sake of the film. Purists will be mad if you take out a word of the original text, so why risk making a movie for such a small niche that might be a snooze to the vast majority?
However, I place the movie’s pacing problems on director Walter Salles, who takes us on a journey with “On the Road” in a stalled car. It has no gas, no forward motion, no ignition, no spark … just characters glumly going through the motions of a beloved story. At times, it’s as if he would rather rival “The Muppets” with impressive celebrity cameos than develop the three main figures.
He’s joined in this noble quest not to make these characters come to vibrant life by Kristen Stewart, who is desperately looking for her big adult breakout role to avoid forever being typecast as her “Twilight” character. “On the Road” marks a huge regression from her 2009 performance in “Adventureland,” one which I thought showed great emotional depth and perhaps even promise for the much-maligned actress. The difference here is that she focuses all her energy on advancing Kristen Stewart the actress through the role and very little of it on advancing her character Marylou. Just to provide an example, she appears topless in her first shot in the film as if to scream “Look how edgy and adult I am!” (She performs plenty of other sordid sexual acts throughout the story, often appearing nude … but never showing her face. Body double? That’s my theory.) If I wanted to think about what “On the Road” meant to Stewart’s career, I would read The Hollywood Reporter; when I watch a movie, I want to be wowed by a character.
On the other hand, Garrett Hedlund thrills as her husband Dean Moriarty, the exciting and spontaneous explorer of drugs and carnality. He, not unlike Stewart, is on the edge of mainstream respectability after roles in “Tron: Legacy” and “Country Strong” have gotten his name out there but done little to convince anyone that true talent resides there. Hedlund gets plenty naked too, but unlike Stewart and Sam Riley as the insipid Kerouac surrogate, he strips down and gets emotionally naked as well. His Dean is the only character with any psychological depth, and Hedlund provides an animated, committed portrayal of a man following through on his every whim and inkling of desire. He is the one revelation of “On the Road,” and the film should hopefully secure the notoriety for Garrett Hedlund that Kristen Stewart needs to drop her ego to attain. C /