Even the most positive reviews of Walter Salles' adaptation of "On the Road" say Jack Kerouac's book is nearly impossible to adapt
"On the Road" is winning attention at Cannes for Kristen Stewart's daring (and baring) performance, but the initial round of reviews have not been kind to Walter Salles' long-in-the-works adaptation of Jack Kerouac's Beat Era classic.
Most critics, though, seem to agree that the movie's shortcomings aren't really the fault of Brazilian director Walter Salles, who won acclaim for "The Motorcycle Diaries."
Instead, they attribute those failings to the impossibility of adapting Kerouac's 1957 book, which revved up a meandering and episodic narrative with the energy of its prose and the timeliness of its message.
"Like the work of James Joyce, the book is explicitly literary, its content inherently bound by its form and its author so fundamentally a writer before a storyteller that many, including myself, believed it to be unadaptable," writes Simon Gallagher at Film School Rejects.
To be sure, some of the early viewers have been more positive. Jerry Cimino from the San Francisco-based Beat Museum (he's a Kerouac expert, not a film critic) tells the faithful, "Kerouac fans will be proud," while Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere says that all the naysayers are dead wrong in a review that begins this way:
"Walter Salles' 'On the Road' is masterful and rich and lusty, meditative and sensual and adventurous and lamenting all at once. It has Bernardo Bertolucci's 'nostalgia for the present' except the present is 1949 to 1951 — it feels completely alive in that time. No hazy gauze, no bop nostalgia. Beautifully shot and cut, excitingly performed and deeply felt."
But apart from those outliers, even the most positive early reviews have been muted. In the Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy writes that Salles "has done a respectable job of it, and at moments better than that, though the film rarely bursts out to provide the sort of heady pleasure it depicts."
And Manohla Dargis at the New York Times, who uncharacteristically rushed into print with an early reaction, terms the movie a "respectable, muted take on Jack Kerouac's ecstatic American story." She sums it up with a take on the character of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) – who, she writes, "can't turn the reading, driving and fornicating – his life on the road – into transcendence and neither can this film."
Additional early reviews include Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian, who calls the film "a good-looking but directionless and self-adoring road movie," and adds, "[T]he heroes of 'On the Road' … strenuously insist on how passionate and life-affirming they are, with dozens of self-consciously staged parties, in which the characters heroically swig from bottles, smoke joints, have sex and become narcissistic, flatulent and boring in a way that isn't entirely intentional."
And Drew McWeeny at HitFix offered measured praise: "While I would not call it a towering accomplishment, it is far more successful than I would have expected knowing the source material."