Taking a cult literary classic like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and bringing it to life in film is a trepidatious task, but one that producer Roman Coppola has always wanted to take on — his father Francis Ford bought the film rights to the story over 30 years ago — though it was not until Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) put his hand up that they felt they had found the right man for the job. “The script that he cooked up was so evidently the right way to go … It was such a natural fit,” Roman said earlier today at the press conference in Cannes.
The film stars British actor Sam Riley as the protagonist Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac), and Garrett Hudland as Dean Moriarty, one of the most interesting literary characters of all time. Dean is based on the beat generation’s muse Neal Cassady, who was good looking, clever and wild (always a winning combination). Back in the day, Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg basically followed Cassady around the country bro-ing out and hanging off his every word, as did numerous beautiful young women. He ended up ping-ponging for most of the time, though, between two main ladies: Marylou (played by Kristen Stewart) and Camille (Kirsten Dunst).
Kristen Stewart’s performance is one of the highlights of the film. The shy Twilight teen is long gone and in her place is a semi-naked, joint-rolling, whisky-swigging wild child. Kristen evidently enjoyed the experience, saying today that it was a chance to really let go whilst in character. “I love pushing… I love scaring myself and I think to watch genuine experience on screen is just so much more interesting. I wanted to do it … [and] in this case I didn’t have a thought in my mind. As long as you are just being really honest there is nothing ever to be ashamed of…” I’m not sure if this means she actually got stoned and had real sex with Garrett (R Patz would not be happy) but whatever she did, it worked.
Kirsten Dunst on the other hand was a little stiff (in the film and at the press conference, actually). Her character Camille was based on Cassady’s wife Carolyn with whom he bore children and allowed his best-bud Kerouac to have relations with for years. We interviewed Caroline (who is now 88 years old) for Oyster #96 and she is far more interesting than the film (and, to be fair, the book) makes her out to be.
The film is beautifully shot and the performances are great — pretty boy Garrett really surprises — but overall it felt pretentious. There were too many stylised shots (drinking, smoking and frenzied dance-offs) and props (old books) and too much philosophising. It was even a little boring in parts: I checked my phone at least ten times throughout the film, which is really not a good sign. Although it remains true to the book, it could be that the book simply doesn’t work on the screen: Kerouac’s lines are reduced to clichéd theatrical moments instead of the ingenious ramblings of an alcoholic whose work continues to inspire many half a century after his work was first published.