“With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life ‘on the road.’ ”

On the Road

IFC Films
The Michigan Theater

With those iconic words, spoken in a scratchy drawl by protagonist Sal Paradise, director Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) begins his reverently faithful adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 beatnik novel, “On the Road.” Starring Garrett Hedlund (“TRON: Legacy”) as the enigmatic Moriarty and British newcomer Sam Riley (“Woman in Love”) as Paradise, his quietly rebellious counterpart, the film deftly encapsulates the anarchy and crippling freedom that defined the Beat generation, but falters as it becomes tangled in its own mystique.

Paradise is a student living in Queens who, after meeting wild and mercurial Moriarty and his pouty, over-sexed child bride Marylou (Kristen Stewart, “Snow White and the Huntsman”), decides on a whim to hitchhike across the country. A high-minded writer, bored and lonely in his static life, he imparts on a search for self-awareness or, at least, meaning behind his discontent.

Though Riley’s attempt at a smoke-addled New York accent is often distracting, his pilgrimage is where the film excels: Salles has already proven his talent for portraying landscapes, and Paradise’s journey — both literal and metaphorical — exudes the beauty of a United States that was more trusting and naïve; a United States in which drifters like Paradise formed their own hyper-connected culture. The imagery of the unending landscape of the midwest is breathtaking and helps relate the yearning these men felt, caught between a war and an unknown future.

Moriarty and Paradise reunite in Denver before once again setting off on some scheme for love and drugs, and here is where Hedlund shines. He seamlessly renders Moriarty’s manic energy, overt sexuality and selfish disregard for the lives he affects. Originally based on real-life renegade Neal Cassady, Moriarty is a complex figure, and Hedlund stands up to the task of playing an inscrutable man. Similarly, Stewart is at last in her element as his whiny and unhinged partner. Their chemistry is palpable as the two speed fatalistically toward their futures.

The film is studded with a parade of periphery characters with big names (Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen and Steve Buscemi, to name a few), all meant to provide differing lenses on this generation. However, they overwhelm an already disjointed story, and as the names build up, this beautiful homage to a generation crumbles.

Salles self-indulges, stuffing the film with discordant sex scenes and overdone symbolism. His stark landscapes and arresting main characters lose focus. Any meaning is lost in the (multiple) threesomes and Benzedrine trips. These characters become canvasses for tropes of the Beat generation, rather than members themselves. It’s as if the film lowers in esteem every time we see Moriarty’s bare ass or Marylou proposes a wild sexual escapade.

Rather then define these characters and show their progression (or regression) as humans in a world increasingly at odds with their lifestyle, the final third of the movie is spent showing their idiosyncrasies, proving just how “crazy” and “free” this time was. The film becomes the endless journey they are on, with no real plan or end in sight.

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