By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
3:01 PM EST, December 20, 2012
There are as many visions of "On the Road," novelist Jack Kerouac's vivid anthem to the romance of youthful freedom and the getting of experience as there are readers. It's a book so influential yet so personal that each succeeding generation since its 1957 publication has picked it up and simply said, as one of its protagonists does, "Oh yes, oh yes, that's the way it goes."
Director Walter Salles has been one of those enthusiasts since he was an 18-year-old growing up in Brazil under a stifling military dictatorship. Best known for transferring Che Guevara's "The Motorcycle Diaries" to film, Salles has lovingly crafted a poetic, sensitive, achingly romantic version of the Kerouac book that captures the evanescence of its characters' existence and the purity of their rebellious hunger for the essence of life.
Salles' version, finely written by Jose Rivera, who also wrote the "Diaries" script, is more than a tribute to people who have passed into legend. Its re-creation of the adventures of Kerouac alter ego Sal Paradise, his best friend and inspiration Dean Moriarty (based on the legendary Neal Cassady, who went on to drive the Magic Bus for Ken Kesey) and Moriarty's wife Marylou uses youthful stars like Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart to show how eternal that yearning remains.
The lure of Kerouac's legacy as Beat Generation avatar is so strong that any number of other prominent actors, including Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Terrence Howard, Steve Buscemi and Viggo Mortensen, signed on for what are essentially supporting roles in part because the book means so much to them.
A major player in the success of "On the Road" is the lyric cinematography, rich in views of the casual beauty of wide-open landscapes shot in all kinds of weather, of French director of photography Eric Gautier, another "Motorcycle Diaries" veteran.
More than just recording scenery, Gautier shot the entire film in a loose, fluid, almost improvisational manner, a visual style that echoes, with good reason, the off-the-cuff feeling of another revolution the Beats influenced, the French New Wave.
Like a fighter on a diet, "On the Road" has been trimmed by about a quarter of an hour from the version that premiered this year at Cannes. The new edition also opens in a different place, with the movie's first glimpse of the igniter of dreams and enabler of fantasies, the character modeled on the man Allen Ginsberg called "the car thief 'Adonis of Denver,' with his head full of philosophy": Dean Moriarty.
The year is 1947, and Moriarty (Hedlund) is introduced moving cars around a New York City parking lot with an élan that reveals a level of driving skill that helped him steal 500 cars as a youth. He'd previously spent, we're told, a third of his young life in pool halls, a third in jail, and a third in the public library, obsessively accumulating knowledge.
The physical manifestation of the life force, Moriarty proved irresistible to the would-be creative types he meets in New York. These include Sal Paradise (Riley, the star of "Control"), a self-described "young writer trying to take off," and Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), an aspiring poet and fellow baby hipster based on Ginsberg.
Moriarty has not come to New York alone but with Marylou, his 16-year-old child bride, persuasively played by Stewart (cast by Salles after her performance in "Into the Wild") who has thrown herself into her role with excellent results.
If there is a breakout performance in "On the Road," however, it is Hedlund. Previously best known for starring in "Tron: Legacy," Hedlund hits all the right notes in the difficult role of being all things to all people.
From the moment he appears opening the door to his apartment completely naked, Hedlund projects the intimate yet intensely masculine presence that drew everyone like a flame. It wasn't just sexual magnetism that's being conveyed, it's the quality that Ginsberg noticed in Neal Cassady: "His total generosity of heart was overwhelming."
Still living with his mother, Paradise the observer is drawn immediately to someone with a formidable will to action, and the two young men immediately bond over stories of their feckless fathers and a joint intoxication with the idea of the camaraderie of the road.
"The only people for me are the mad ones," Paradise says in one of the book's (and the film's) most celebrated passages. "The ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like Roman candles across the night."
Episodic by nature like the book, "On the Road" stays with Paradise as he ping-pongs around the country, gathering experiences he painstakingly records in a series of notebooks. Sometimes he's by himself, sometimes he's with Moriarty, who is soon dividing his sexual attention among Marylou, the new woman in his life Camille (Dunst) and even Carlo Marx.
One of the hallmarks of Salles and Rivera's perspective is that even though these characters can be heedless in search of their pleasures, whether it be through sex or drugs, the film never loses sight of how young everyone is, and by implication, how innocent. How long they can live on "the edge of sanity and experience" before a reckoning looms down the road is the question everyone wants to avoid but, finally, no one can.
MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual content, drug use and language
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: At the Landmark Theater, West L.A., and ArcLight, Hollywood