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Walter Salles' "On the Road" was made with noble intentions, finely crafted filmmaking and handsome casting, but, alas, it does not burn, burn, burn.

Salles, the Brazilian filmmaker of "The Motorcycle Diaries" and "Central Station," would seem the perfect director to translate to the screen Jack Kerouac's poetry of the road. But this "On the Road," the first ever big-screen adaptation of the Beat classic, doesn't pulse with the electric, mad rush of Kerouac's feverish phenomenon.

Salles approached the book with reverence and deep research, and perhaps that's the problem -- that its spirit got suffocated by respectfulness. The late '40s period detail, shot by cinematographer Eric Gautier, is lush, and there is surely a very attractive montage that could be pulled from the film.

This undated publicity film image released by IFC Films/Sundance Selects shows Kristen Stewart, center, as Marylou/LuAnne Henderson in a scene from the
This undated publicity film image released by IFC Films/Sundance Selects shows Kristen Stewart, center, as Marylou/LuAnne Henderson in a scene from the film, "On the Road," directed by Walter Salles. (AP Photo/IFC Films/Sundance Selects, Gregory Smith) ( Gregory Smith )

But if anything has made "On the Road" so beloved, it's not its artful composition, but its yearning: the urgent passion of its characters to break free of themselves and postwar America and feel the freedom of the road. Salles captures the backpacks slung over hitchhiker shoulders, the rushing scenery out the car window, the sound of a dirt road underfoot. But his film, from the screenplay by "Motorcycle Diaries" writer Jose Rivera, ultimately feels conventional: too neatly packaged and too affectedly acted.

As our Dean Moriarty, Kerouac's stand-in for Neal Cassady, Garrett Hedlund ("Tron") gives his all in an ultimately failed attempt to find Moriarty's wild magnetism within him. As the center of the book and the film -- the Gatsby to our narrator Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) -- he's crucial to "On the Road" working. But he's missing the mythical spark of Moriarty and the grit of someone who grew up on the streets of Denver, stealing cars.


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Paradise and Moriarty make a series of crisscrossing trips across the country, bound in a brotherhood of travel. Paradise, Kerouac's stand-in, is forever jotting down notes while Moriarty jumps from one woman to another. Carlo Marx, aka Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge) is there, too, enamored and in love with Moriarty, while sharing the intellectual ambitions of Paradise.

Salles has focused particularly on the carnality of Kerouac's tale, and it threatens to overtake the film. As Moriarty's first wife, Marylou, Kristen Stewart's slinky sensuality briefly dominates the movie, but her character is never developed beyond her sexy bohemia.

Better are the cameos of women left by the wayside. Kirsten Dunst, in a few scenes as Moriarty's heartbroken second wife, Camille, makes a stronger impression than anyone. Elisabeth Moss, too, excels as a forgotten woman. The women of "On the Road," afterthoughts in the book, have more fire than the men.

Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Terrence Howard and Amy Adams make cameos, mostly suggesting the prestige of the project. In the end, "On the Road" remains paved over.

This undated publicity film image released by IFC Films/Sundance Selects shows Sam Riley as Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac in a scene from the film, "On
This undated publicity film image released by IFC Films/Sundance Selects shows Sam Riley as Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac in a scene from the film, "On the Road," directed by Walter Salles. (AP Photo/IFC Films/Sundance Selects, Gregory Smith) ( Gregory Smith )

'on the road'

* *

Rating: R (for sexual content and language)
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Tom Sturridge and Kristen Stewart
Director: Walter Salles
Running time: 2 hours,
5 minutes