When you take a memoir-like, stream-of-consciousness work of fiction like Jack Kerouac's On The Road and then fantasize a film version of that book, one where everybody knows who the characters really are in spite of their invented names (even more so than, say, "Neely O'Hara" as Judy Garland in Valley Of The Dolls), does it matter how much is right or wrong, accurate or not? At this point in history this group of devil-may-care freedom-fighter artists are about as public domain-usable as Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. They've been appropriated for Gap ads. You can attach anything you want to them and they wear it well, sturdily, on the strength of their own post-War, possibilities-based euphoria. They did what they wanted, even if it wasn't always that much, and they did it stylishly. While on drugs.
A lot of aimless wandering takes place in this movie. And a lot of sex. "Sal Paradise"/Kerouac (Sam Riley) and "Dean Moriarty"/Neal Cassady (Garrett Hedlund) and "Marylou"/LuAnne Henderson (Kristen Stewart) are not afraid to drive without a map, drunkenly sass police officers, or get naked and get it on wherever they feel like it, even if it's just a friendly group round of masturbation in the front seat of a moving car. If that feels gratuitous, think of it like a game of sensation-based chicken: when you're young and wasted and convinced that your libertinism will save not only you but the rest of the world, too, it's not enough to be merely ripped on Benzedrine and wearing no seatbelts, you have to experience the jolt of being alive by rubbing one out with buddies on the highway at 80 mph. They're not yet burned out and looking for reverse answers like in Easy Rider or blankly hurtling toward nowhere like in Two-Lane Blacktop. They want to shake it up -- whatever "it" is -- and move on.
Guided by director Walter Salles (whose already created one vintage road movie, The Motorcycle Diaries) the performances are, across the board, the kind where not-talking takes priority over filling in the spaces with script-based personality. And then the momentum slows a bit as life and responsibilities creep in (best embodied by a furious Elisabeth Moss in one scene-stealing moment), but they still manage to cross paths with "Carlo Marx"/Alan Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge) and his pre-Stonewall open homosexuality, as well as "Old Bull Lee"/William Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen) and his gun fixation and "orgone accumulator." They dance to O.G. hipster be-bop and talk like self-conscious writers and tap-tap-tap on vintage typewriters, determined to make their speedy directionlessness mean something to somebody. If you feel anything for them besides fascination, it's a desire to see them create something soon, otherwise none of this rambling will have yielded anything but sex-for-gas-money with Steve Buscemi (yes, that happens, too, with Garrett Hedlund, one of the most unlikely cinematic couplings of the past decade).
But you don't have to worry about the consequences of casual prostitution for long. The road comes to an end, of course. The cars stop moving. And then they all get down to work. They get famous. They die young or old (Burroughs, of all people, the junkiest of junkies, lived to be approximately 300) and they live on, meaning whatever you want them to mean. That's sort of a happy ending, right?