The call of the road has certainly been strong enough throughout the years to lure a great many name directors into attempting to film Jack Kerouac's beat manifesto of a novel, On the Road. Yet no production ever managed to actually come to fruition until now, with the Motorcycle Diaries writer/director team of José Rivera and Walter Salles in charge and a blessing from exec producer Francis Ford Coppola, in a transatlantic production with European and American monies. Yet the impossible has certainly not been achieved. Their filming of On the Road (screened here in the longer 140-minute cut, not in the two-hour version released in the US) is by no means a dud, merely a sincere but bungled effort that buys wholesale into the beat myth the novel built around itself, but that fails to locate the beating heart at its centre.

     The opening scenes of Kerouac's alter ego Sal Paradise (played in earnest puppy mode by British actor Sam Riley) hitching a ride on a farmhand truck heading West, suggests Messrs. Salles and Rivera have their hearts in the right place. But that attempt at capturing the call of road, the exhilaration and freedom of finding your own path through life, is quickly left behind in a film that ends up resolutely boxed in, grounded throughout, stuck in the impeccably retro cheap rentals, dive bars, diners and halfway houses where Sal chases the mercurial inspiration for his work, and his fascination with the quicksilver Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). There is no magic, no freedom in Mr. Salles' film, earnest to a fault and unable to meet the oblique poetry demanded to even approach the energy of the book.

     There are many things done right in On the Road: Carlos Conti's lovingly detailed production design, Éric Gautier's attentive, lyrical widescreen cinematography, Mr. Hedlund's commanding performance, smart cameos from Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen. Ultimately, though, there is nothing really wrong with On the Road other than the earnest desire to get it exactly right - so right it ends up completely bypassing its truth and becoming merely a leftfield coming of age tale about an aspiring writer entranced by the older, experienced man whom he thinks he can learn truth and life from if he just sticks around long enough. The book was so much more than that; the film isn't.

Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Danny Morgan, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen

Director: Walter Salles
Screenplay: José Rivera, from the novel by Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Cinematography: Éric Gautier (colour, processing by Digimage Cinéma, widescreen)
Designer: Carlos Conti
Costumes: Danny Glicker
Editor: François Gedigier
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Producers: Nathanaël Karmitz, Charles Gillibert, Rebecca Yeldham, Roman Coppola (MK2 Productions, American Zoetrope, Videofilmes, France 2 Cinéma, Jerry Leider Company in association with Film 4 and Vanguard Films)
France/Brazil/United Kingdom/USA/Canada, 2012, 140 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 5 (Lisbon), December 13th 2012


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