The road to adapting Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel "On the Road" for the screen was filled with potholes and began several decades ago when the author courted Marlon Brando for the lead role of Beat generation drifter Dean Moriarty. Brando expressed little interest in the part, and Francis Ford Coppola eventually bought the rights in the late '70s, first hiring several screenwriters to adapt the book before attempting to crack the script with his filmmaker son, Roman Coppola. A number of top actors, including Brad Pitt, Ethan Hawke and Colin Farrell, also flirted with the lead part, and directors Joel Schumacher and Gus Van Sant were reportedly interested in the material but never made the film. Coppola eventually hired Brazilian director Walter Salles after viewing The Motorcycle Diaries, and Salles went through several years of further start-date and monetary setbacks and intense research before shooting On the Road in late 2010. His film arrives with a cast less mainstream than the actors courted for earlier attempts, and actor Garrett Hedlund, best known for his work in TRON: Legacy, takes the reins as Dean Moriarty. On the Road is attractively assembled, with beautiful cinematography from Eric Gautier and music from Gustavo Santaolalla, but perhaps misses the seat-of-the-pants energy and fringe courting from Kerouac's novel. Hedlund commands attention, but Sam Riley is less impressive as secondary lead Sal Paradise. The supporting cast is of appropriate pedigree, including Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen, but only Kristen Stewart manages to embody the wind-whipped rebelliousness that the story suggests.
I will be upfront that I have not yet read Kerouac's complete novel, and I am judging On the Road solely on its merits and supplementing the critique with what I know of the source material. The novel was certainly controversial for its depiction of Beat generation outsiders unconcerned with following the prescribed routes for a successful American life. Critics were passionate - fondly and savagely - but the book got people talking, and TIME Magazine named it one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century. The novel's content and historical context are likely the reason for the delay in brining it to the screen. It's difficult to film a feeling, a movement or an experience, and so it's not surprising that some critics have criticized On the Road for playing it safe and literal. The fundamental flaw I find with On the Road is that it never really explains why Dean is such a magnetic presence. This is a wanderer, artist and renaissance man; he pulls men and women alike into his web of unconventional love and friendship, all the while remaining oblivious to the pain he causes as he skips in and out of lives. I suspect this is something lost in translation from page to screen, and, while it's not necessarily Hedlund's fault, there is clearly something less persuasive about the leading man as filmed than as written.
The narrative of On the Road, shot from a screenplay by Jose Rivera, is an unconventional series of interconnected events in the lives of Dean, Sal and their troupe. Recurring characters include Dean's temporary wife Marylou (Stewart), who is introduced as a sixteen-year-old nymphomaniac who craves Dean's kind of chaos. Her arrival is preceded by an introduction to Dean, who Sal describes in voiceover as having spent equal portions of his life in jail, in the streets and in the library. Sal needs Dean to inspire him to write a novel, and Dean needs Sal to teach him how to write. Dean needs others, including eventual love interest and mother to his children Camille (Dunst) to wait for him as he gallivants about the country, bedding women all the while. There are many scenes that depict the ruination that follows a visit from Dean. He leaves his first wife Galatea (Elisabeth Moss) alone and destitute, and Sal's longtime friend Old Bull Lee (Mortensen) muses that Dean's madness is especially dangerous because it is not from drugs or booze but from Dean's own internal workings. Dean guts another of Sal's friends, Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), by beginning an intense love affair with him that Dean ends coldly and without warning. Dean's ultimate betrayal comes in Mexico and affects Sal, who learns the true extent of his friend's fickleness. It's through these betrayals that On the Road builds an unusual sympathy for Dean, whose Good Time-Charlie personality masks an intense loneliness and tendency for self-sacrifice.
Although it debuted at Sundance, On the Road received surprisingly little promotion from the studio, and its soft landing was likely a disappointment for Coppola after the project's lengthy gestation. I don't think the film's box office performance is indicative of its quality, as it's certainly an ambitious movie that offers enough to recommend despite its flaws. The period locations, props and costumes are impressive, and On the Road is attractively lensed. The pacing is never as suitably breakneck as it might have been under a different director, and the two hour-plus runtime drags at points. Hedlund gives himself completely to the character, but there just isn't enough there for the articulate actor to fully live up to Dean's legend. Stewart, oft criticized for her lack of emotion, is the only actor given the opportunity to really let loose. Her Marylou is a wild, inwardly devastated woman, and Stewart plows forward with a furious energy lacking from much of the film. On the Road will likely be remembered as a disappointing adaptation of Kerouac's novel and forgotten as a dramatic film. The emotions, characters and conflicts are all there in spirit, but On the Road never brings them into our world.
The beautiful 35 mm cinematography is let down somewhat by a transfer that is adequate but not especially impressive. The 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is often nicely detailed, with sharp texture and good delineation, but there's a sloppiness that occasionally threatens to overwhelm the proceedings. This may be the result of MPI using a single-layer Blu-ray disc, but there are more than a few scenes where compression artifacts pop up. These are usually a problem only in outdoor scenes and manifest themselves in rain/snow, on tree branches and in backgrounds. This gives the film a slightly muddy look that I suspect could have been remedied with a better compression algorithm. Fortunately, MPI does not scrub the natural film grain to death, and both color saturation and black levels are good.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is impressive, and provides a much more consistent experience. The track is often quite immersive, and the jazzy score surrounds the viewer. This music is given full LFE and surround support and is layered nicely with effects and dialogue, which is always clear. These effects - mostly ambient but occasionally more pronounced - move through the sound field appropriately, and directional effects are common. An English 2.0 LPCM track is also included, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
The disc is sadly lacking in extras, and a lengthy making-of documentary might have at least explained some of the problems with adapting the novel into this film. All you get are a few Deleted Scenes (7:48/HD) and the film's Theatrical Trailer (2:29/HD). Perhaps Coppola, Salles and the cast and crew didn't care to comment, but I suspect the film's underperformance scuttled a more extensive extras package.
The lengthy struggle to bring an adaptation of Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel "On the Road" to the screen finally ended with this Walter Salles-directed drama. Francis Ford Coppola personally selected Salles for the job, and the Brazilian director does an adequate if imperfect job directing his ensemble cast, which includes Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams and Kirsten Dunst. On the Road suggests the emotions, conflicts and character interactions of Kerouac's Beat-generation epic, but the film's case for why Hedlund's Dean Moriarty is so damn appealing is flawed. Despite its tempered approach to the once-salacious material, On the Road still offers enough of interest to offset some of its flaws. With that in mind, Rent It.