Cannes Check: Walter Salles's 'On the Road'

Posted by · 3:54 am · May 14th, 2012

The director: Walter Salles (Brazilian, 56 years old)

The talent: As if the long-awaited adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Beat classic wasn’t going to attract enough eyeballs already on the Croisette, it comes packed to the gills with star names: Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst (who, of course, is the festival’s reigning Best Actress), Steve Buscemi, “Mad Men” star Elisabeth Moss, Terrence Howard and, most excitingly to the red-carpet hordes, Kristen Stewart, whose prominent role here should hopefully remind “Twilight” sceptics of the form she’s displayed in such smaller projects as “Adventureland” and “The Runaways.” 

Against all this star-wattage, the film’s co-leads, Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, are comparatively low-profile — probably a cunning choice for two roles where decades of casting speculation (and any number of megastars attached over the years) has amped up the pressure on whoever plays them. Both men come with points to prove. “TRON: Legacy” was supposed to do more for American hunk Hedlund’s brand than it eventually did. Meanwhile, the wiry, offbeat Riley made a startling breakthrough five years ago in “Control,” but hasn’t consolidated it since — we’ll put his badly misjudged turn in the badly misjudged “Brighton Rock” behind us.

Also seeking a return to form is screenwriter Jose Rivera, who scored an Oscar nomination for his last collaboration with Salles, the similarly tricky adaptation “The Motorcycle Diaries,” but whose biggest screen credit since then has been, er, “Letters to Juliet.” Another “Diaries” contributor returning to Salles’s team is brilliant French cinematographer Eric Gautier (“Into the Wild, “Summer Hours”), who has another Competition credit this year on Alain Resnais’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.” Completing the “Diaries” reunion: composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who has won two Oscars since Salles’s 2004 film announced him to the world at large, and production designer Carlos Conti. Editor Francois Gedigier, whose previous credits include “Dancer in the Dark” and “Queen Margot,” is new to the director’s crew, as is Oscar-nominated costume designer Danny Glicker (“Milk”).

Producers Charles Gillibert and Nathaneal Karmitz have an impressive arthouse résumé that includes more foreign-language fare in the vein of “Certified Copy” and “Summer Hours,” while Francis Ford Coppola, who bought the rights to Kerouac’s novel over 40 years ago, retains an executive producer credit.

The pitch: If you’re among the millions who have already read “On the Road” — something of a compulsory text for a particular breed of teens, college students and slackers alike — you hardly need this paragraph. Kerouac’s autobiographical novel, written in 1951 and published six years later, is the definitive portrait of the author’s self-described Beat generation, the post-WWII wave of free-living, intellectually engaged and societally unbound young adults. Taking place between 1947 and 1950, the five-part book recounts a series of road trips undertaken by narrator Sal Paradise (Riley), a divorced, displaced writer, and his feckless on-off friend Dean Moriarty (Hedlund), their travels peppered with conflicts and encounters with revolving-door set of women, and underpinned by their doomed resistance to settle.

A film adaptation of the novel has been mooted since the 1960s: while certainly not “unfilmable,” as some have branded it over the years, with its formless, episodic structure and itchily wordy prose, it’s hardly surprising that it’s taken this long to come to fruition. Salles and Rivera have taken on a beast, but after taming another daunting road-based text in “The Motorcycle Diaries,” they’ll be hoping to repeat the trick. 

The pedigree: This is Salles’s third time in Competition at Cannes, though he has yet to win a prize from the jury: “The Motorcycle Diaries” was rewarded with Ecumenical Jury Prize (and went on to land him a BAFTA, among other year-end honors for the film), while his polite but tepidly received 2008 follow-up, “Linha de Passe” won a surprise Best Actress award for Sandra Corveloni. His biggest European festival coup remains the Golden Bear at Berlin for his Oscar-nominated 1998 breakthrough “Central Station.” “On the Road” is his first English-language work since his 2005 horror remake “Dark Water,” an attempt to crack the mainstream that is better than some would have you believe.  

The buzz: In terms of media attention, buzz is through the roof: the star-spangled cast, combined with the film’s classic, even cult-inspiring, source material and famously protracted journey to the screen, ensures this will be one of the biggest red-carpet draws of the festival. (If nothing else, it’s prompting certain message-board groupies to expand their literary horizons beyond Stephenie Meyer, so hurray for that.) Critically, however, the film has rather a lot of scepticism to overcome: there are many who believe Kerouac’s novel resists successful screen treatment, while others would prefer a more aggressive stylist than Salles, not a name that gets auteurist cinephiles particularly fired up, to have taken it on. A predictably handsome trailer answered few questions, so it’s all to play for. Still, news of the film being acquired by IFC and Sundance Selects promises a healthy arthouse profile even if the critics don’t swoon.

The odds: The bookies can sometimes be distracted by shiny star names, but not this time: with Paddy Power odds of 25-1, the film is at the back of the pack for the Palme d’Or, and will really need to wow the Croisette to turn that around. (That said, if Rivera does even a serviceable job of this daunting adaptation assignment, he could be in line for Best Screenplay honors.) An encouraging critical response, backing up its prestige-season US release, would be a big enough win for the film. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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