By Owen Gleiberman
January 09, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST
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In On the Road, Walter Salles’ reverent, almost painfully literal adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s birth-of-the-Beat-spirit novel, the characters keep getting high on one thing or another: drugs, twisty jazz dancing, unbridled sex, poetic streams of language. On a car ride to nowhere, Sal (Sam Riley), the Kerouac figure, gets naked with Dean (Garrett Hedlund), the life-force stud narcissist modeled after Neal Cassady, and Marylou (Kristen Stewart), Dean’s naively game ex-wife. The odd thing about the movie, which is set in the late ’40s and ’50s, is that even as we’re observing all of this mad sensual activity, it’s staged with a kind of museum-piece diligence. The best thing here is Hedlund’s wildly cracked acting as Dean, whose hunger for life — erotic, insatiable, destructive — kindles a fire that will light the way to a new era. Yet what Salles doesn’t conjure is the rapture of Kerouac’s bohemian romanticism. Wthout it, On the Road is a remote experience, all reason and no rhyme. B-

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