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Lost Horizon

On the Road (2012)

Gregory Smith/IFC Films

The urge to make movies out of things never intended to be movies — to put every cultural artifact with any potency through the moving-picture mincing machine and see whether what comes out of the other end, can reach the parts the original never managed to in some meaningful (or profitable) way — is a thoroughly mixed blessing. "On The Road," Jack Kerouac's freewheeling jazz symphony of youthful dislocation and post-war America reformation, lends itself to cinematic presentation not at all, so Walter Salles and writer Jose Rivera make some eminently reasonable compromises trying to squeeze the author's squirming text into a tidy box and sit on the lid. But one of them was to not actually use the roads that Kerouac's characters worshiped, instead forced by logistics to film in Canada and South America, and so depriving the characters and the rest of us of the chance to chase the same horizons that Kerouac had in mind. Of all the gifts that a film version could have brought to this particular story, forgoing that one leaves a dent in the grand plan: The America in this American myth has gone missing.

Apart from the small matter of breathing the wrong air, most of the characters are recognizable in spirit if not in form. The heart of the matter is still the evolution of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley, suitably saturnine and moody) and the devolution of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund, dirty blond and beatific enough to be up for the lead in "Jesus Christ Superstar"), a process Mr. Salles handles with due reverence for the characters' artistic agonies. Their three-way fumblings with Marylou (Kristen Stewart) veer a bit closer to melodrama than identity crisis, but Ms. Stewart's brittle antagonism fits the bill for once, and the film has a certain sweaty lyricism whenever the three of them get together.

Even in Mr. Salles's simplified story, the film tends to lurch a bit from vignette to vignette. It certainly avoids the book's wider points — about class and Sal's sentiments about "arty types" sucking the blood of America — by simply leaving them out. But in return it becomes an actor's film. One look into the eyes of skillful operators such as Elisabeth Moss and Amy Adams crystallizes the place of Kerouac's put-upon and largely unsympathized-with female characters in a way the first-person prose only lazily grasped at.

The juiciest cameo is Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee, complete with orgone accumulator in his back yard. If Mr. Mortensen's growling screen presence wasn't enough to breathe life into a film — which it usually is — the sight of this particular actor playing an avatar of William Burroughs causes a sudden note of David Cronenberg to resonate in sympathy, right at the heart of the film.

In common with a current trend, "On the Road" is built to be an origin story, keen to show the beginnings of something big. "The Rum Diary" recently pulled the same trick, ending not with its Hunter S. Thompson figure slinking off with his tail between his legs as in the book, but instead with him fired up with furious anger, steaming off in the general direction of Richard M. Nixon like a guided missile. So too here, with Sal Paradise suffering interminable writer's block over a book that's clearly "On the Road," until the end of the film and the invented arrival in the post of a poem by his friend Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge). Marx is Allen Ginsberg by any other name, and the poem that unblocks Sal's pipes is actually Ginsberg's "Paterson." One read is enough to have Sal leaping to the keyboard to get cracking. Imposing such a neat narrative bow on deliberately frayed art never does anyone any favors. It's the curse of closure.


Opens on Oct. 12 in Britain and on Dec. 21 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Walter Salles; written by José Rivera, based on the novel by Jack Kerouac; director of photography, Eric Gautier; edited by François Gedigier; music by Gustavo Santaolalla featuring Charlie Haden and Brian Blade; production design by Carlos Conti; costumes by Danny Glicker; produced by Nathanaël Karmitz, Charles Gillibert, Rebecca Yeldham and Roman Coppola; released by Lionsgate (Britain) and IFC Films and Sundance Selects. (United States) Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Garrett Hedlund (Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady), Sam Riley (Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac), Kristen Stewart (Marylou/LuAnn Henderson), Amy Adams (Jane/Joan Vollmer), Tom Sturridge (Carlo Marx/Allen Ginsberg), Danny Morgan (Ed Dunkle/Al Hinkle), Alice Braga (Terry/Bea Franco), Marie-Ginette Guay (Ma Paradise), Elisabeth Moss (Galatéa Dunkle/Helen Hinkle), Kirsten Dunst (Camille/Carolyn Cassady) and Viggo Mortensen (Old Bull Lee/William S. Burroughs).


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