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IFC Films and Sundance Selects ready 'On the Road' for the journey

The long-gestating adaptation is adopted ahead of its Cannes premiere

<p>Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund in &quot;On the Road.&quot;</p>

Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund in "On the Road."

Credit: IFC/Sundance Selects

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The Cannes Film Festival unveiled its screening schedule today, and I'm both pleased and surprised to see that this year's edition is playing the long game. While it's often the case that most of the big-ticket premieres are spilled in the early stages of the fest, this year's programmers have stored up a number of the lineup's most eagerly-awaited English-language titles for the closing days: Jeff Nichols' "Mud" unspools on the last day of Competition, David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis" on the penultimate day, and Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy" one day before that.

It's a pointed rejoinder to the many American journalists (HitFix's own Drew McWeeny among them) who have already planned to leave town days before the festival finishes, countering the accepted wisdom that the festival peters out toward the end. As in 2008, when "The Class" was the final Competition film screened and took many off-guard by winning the Palme d'Or, the message appears to be that, at Cannes, every day counts.

Included in this late-festival scheduling spike is Walter Salles' "On the Road," which premieres on May 23. It seems oddly appropriate to keep festivalgoers waiting a little while for the eagerly anticipated adaptation of Jack Kerouac's iconic Beat novel: considering the film has been on the cards since 1968, when a pre-"Godfather" Francis Ford Coppola scooped the rights, waiting has been the name of the game with this project. What's a few extra days, festival organizers seem to be teasing, added to 44 years? (David Gritten has written a detailed breakdown of the film's tortuous, one-step-forward-two-steps-back journey to the screen; it's well worth a read, if only to be reminded of that scary stage when it looked like it was all going to fall to Joel Schumacher.)

I remain nervous about "On the Road." While I've never really subscribed to the notion of certain books being "unfilmable" -- it's about being literate, not literal -- Kerouac's stippled, formless, faintly unwelcoming prose poses some obvious potential pitfalls to any filmmaker nervous of handling it with the requisite aggression, however neatly it lends itself to the road-movie idiom.

Walter Salles is an intelligent, conscientious filmmaker, but also rather a polite one: his handsome, absorbing treatment of "The Motorcycle Diaries" (adapted, to Oscar-nominated effect, by Jose Rivera, who also wrote the "On the Road" script) is, on the surface, an obvious qualification for this assignment, but gives no indication of how the new film might assimilate and reflect the singular language and jazz rhythms of its source. It's the ballsiest task of Salles's career, and we won't know if and/or how he's pulled it off until we see the film for ourselves.   

Two outfits that obviously believe he's pulled it off are IFC and Sundance Selects -- who, in the biggest nugget of pre-Cannes acquisitions news to date, snapped up the US distribution rights to the film yesterday. This news firmly nails the film's indie colors to the mast. Where it might have hoped for a home with the boutique arm of a bigger studio outfit -- especially considering the name appeal of stars like Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Kristen Stewart, for whom the hordes will be screaming on the Cannes red carpet regardless of the film's likely profile -- the more specialized environs if IFC and Sundance seem a better fit for this challenging proposition.

Either they were savvy to get their offer in there early, before critical reactions could potentially interest bigger buyers, or the film's  handlers suspected a cushier offer wouldn't be forthcoming. Either way, it bodes well for an appropriately challenging and uncompromised adaptation of a daunting property. IFC/Sundance president Jonathan Sehring has promised a late-autumn release in the States, claiming they are "putting all [their] resources together to make this theatrical release into a significant cultural event." It's the kind of bullish talk that is meant to inspire Oscar speculation, however lean the distributors' record in this regard. One can't help thinking, however, that if Salles has really got "On the Road" right, middlebrow awards attention shouldn't be any kind of given. 

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

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Guy Lodge
Critic
Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.
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UPDATED: MARCH 2, 2014