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REVIEW: 'On the Road' pulls up just short

| Thursday, March 28, 2013, 7:53 p.m.
MK2 Productions
Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund in 'On the Road'

People have been trying to film Jack Kerouac's “On the Road,” the talismanic Beat novel, just about since the day it was published in 1957.

But here, finally, and kind of anticlimactically, comes a r eal “On the Road,” directed by Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”).

Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, Kerouac's alter ego, and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty (alias Neal Cassady) crisscross the States, dropping down to New Orleans from New York and then over to San Francisco and all around, the wild-and-crazy guys lob a lot of highfalutin gab about freedom and truth, the nature of man and the search for God. And then they smoke some weed, play some jazz, have some sex and scrounge for cash.

If there's an element of posturing and posing in the book — the eager Sal practically taking notes at Dean Moriarty's feet — it's even more pronounced in the film. Riley and Hedlund are handsome dudes and earnest actors, but to watch them here is to see two men not quite certain how to burrow deep into the characters they're playing, because the characters they're playing were faking it, too. How do you get to the core of someone who is still figuring out who he (or she) is, scratching for clues from the people who impress them, glomming onto intellectual and artistic theories that ring true?

“On the Road” is shot beautifully, and Salles has managed to find a two-lane America of small towns unblemished by strip malls, of big cities that still feel like they have room to breathe. Kristen Stewart is convincing as the wild, teenage Marylou (based on Cassady's wife, LuAnne), a sexually accommodating traveling companion with a sad, self-protective edge. And Kirsten Dunst gets the strongest — and least fun — scenes as Camile (a.k.a. Carolyn), Moriarty's next missus, and the mother of his babies, stuck in her San Francisco apartment while the guys hit the town.

“On the Road” is an honorable homage to the bennies-and-booze-and-bebop-driven hegiras undertaken by the fiercely dedicated anti-establishment duo. But in Salles, screenwriter Jose Rivera and company's effort to get the details right, they get only so far.

And it's not quite far enough.

Stephen Rea reviews movies for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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