Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel, “On the Road,” is regularly classified as “unfilmable,” and with good reason. How do you shoehorn a legendary stream-of-consciousness blurt — a work famously written on a 120-foot scroll, as though putting a fresh sheet of paper in the typewriter would just get in the way — into the confines of semi-conventional cinema? Maybe the best approach would be to forget about the Beats, set “On the Road” in the modern day, and shoot it on cellphones. Anything to reflect the Day-Glo immediacy of Kerouac’s prose.
Instead, we have Walter Salles’s “On the Road,” a straightforward and rather sane version of the events described in the book and, against all odds, a surprisingly effective movie. Salles is Brazilian — he made the 2004 Young Che Guevara movie “The Motorcycle Diaries” — and maybe that helps, since he’s reverential toward the Beats without treating Kerouac and company as rebel saints, the way we can. Stolid as this “On the Road” often is, it has an outsider’s eye for the beauties of America’s physical and emotional landscape, and it shares the reckless excitement of its young seekers while standing just far enough outside to see the damage they leave in their wake.