Director: Bart Freundlich. Cast: Billy Crudup, Julianne Moore, David Keith, Francie Swift, Cleavant Derricks, Mary McCormack, Karen Allen, Liane Balaban, James LeGros, Nicolas Suresky. Screenplay: Bart Freundlich.
After two full-length features, writer-director Bart Freundlich remains an American independent-film experiment that may or may not come to fruition. His previous feature, 1997's The Myth of Fingerprints, collected a bushel of attractive, interesting actorsBlythe Danner, Roy Scheider, Noah Wyle, Hope Davis, Michael Vartan, Brian Kerwin, Laurel Holloman, and the auteur's future companion Julianne Mooreto spin a quiet, insinuating story of the almost silent resentments percolating beneath an affluent family's Thanksgiving. The film worked on its own talky, angsty terms, and I have returned to it in my mind more often in ensuing years than I expected I wouldthough it must be said that the eminent tastefulness of script, cast, and decor occasionally made the project seem like the world's saddest J.Crew commercial. My most pressing curiosity after Myth was whether Freundlich could imagine a world and a dramatis personae outside the realm of earth-toned, pressed and pleated living-room dysfunction.
World Traveler leaves that question open, which is at least consistent, because World Traveler leaves open just about every question it raises. Essentially a road movie, the narrative follows a New York architect named Cal (as in callow?) as he follows a sudden impulse to flee his pressed and pleated existence in Manhattan for no destination in particular, and for no precisely defined reason. The grand tradition of premature midlife crisis teaches us, of course, that Cal feels suffocated, trapped, unequal to people's sudden expectations of him, doomed to repeat inherited patterns, yadda yadda, though we still hope the film will find new ways of telling us these things.
So, Cal jumps in the car one afternoon, just as his wife Joanie (Francie Swift) and young son Leo (Nicolas Suresky) are scheduled to arrive for the boy's birthday party. He doesn't look back, though he has guilty hallucinations of Joanie and Leo along many of the various routes he travels toward the other coast. Along the way, Cal encounters a gallery of off-beat typesnot David Lynch-level offbeat, but quirky in a way that transcends the increasingly suspicious cutesiness of that term. Eventually, near the film's end, Cal winds up in the Oregon cabin where his own father relocated decades ago, after pulling exactly the same domestic disappearing act Cal has just performed. Billy Crudup, as Cal, and David Keith, as Pop, sort of stare at each other and orbit around each other's personal space, on the way to some familiar recriminations, confessions, and drawn expressions. From all this, Cal gleans something that, in his infinite dramatic mystery, he feels he needs to glean, leading to the film's characteristically cryptic conclusion. World Traveler doesn't lack an ending, but it does truncate its conclusion right at the moment we might learn something about how deeply or genuinely Cal has been absorbing all the run-ins and conversations he's been having along his yuppie pilgrimmage.
Our extremely limited access to Cal's psychology is a blessing that becomes an annoyance. How gratifying to find any American film that does not gravitate around relentless exposition, over-definition of its characters, or a compulsive need to ingratiate us into its universe. And yet, and yet, Freundlich really tests our limits with a film that, while side-stepping some conventions, doesn't make a strong enough case for the road less traveled. Lots of dramas have done well portraying enigmatic characters, even characters who are enigmatic to themselvesand many of these same actors have appeared in those pictures, people like Crudup (in Waking the Dead), Mary McCormack (Full Frontal), and of course Julianne Moore, who has all but constructed her brilliant career playing women who barely exist, or barely grasp their existence. Dulcie, the tanned and brunette drifter Moore contributes to this film, is one of its most vivid creations, a sharp spike in the film's pulse and a welcome addition to Moore's odd portfolio of roles. Cal's scenes with Dulcie also showcase Freundlich's gifts for slippery, interesting dialogue; their dinner conversation at an upscale restaurant is weird and absorbing, because while both of them make real efforts to be frank and forthcoming, they are consistently baffled by each other's remarks. (Dulcie asking Cal what kind of car he drives, having just been ferried to dinner in that very vehicle, and having just been given a much more compelling morsel of information, is a gorgeous moment.)
But Dulcie's subplot wobbles as the film gets more explicit about who she is. World Traveler as a whole has the same problem: it is more captivating as it opens than as it concludes, it sounds interesting in concept but drags in execution, and everyone in it is more interesting the less time we spend with them. James LeGros, another Myth of Fingerprints vet, engages Cal in a nervy, veiled confrontation in the Minneapolis airport, but the scene is two minutes too long, and the character's secret motivations are spelled out too fully. Meg, a teenage hitchhiker that Cal has picked up on the way to Minnesota, is a charming creation of the filmmaker and performer, but Freundlich bungles her exit from the movie, including too many cutaways to her when her role in the plot, and in Cal's life, has already evaporated.
And Crudup, an interesting actor who tends, I think, to be overrated, doesn't seem totally reconciled to the level of inwardness Freundlich has assigned to the character. He indulges in some Brandoish gesticulationsbanging the roof of the car while he drives, screaming to no onethat seem intended to give Cal vitality and unpredictability, but they just don't feel true. And that impossibly cheekboned, black-eyed face of Crudup's is quite a thing to look at, but it doesn't give much emotionally; the live theater, as in Crudup's recent reembodiment of The Elephant Man, may actually be the medium for him. In any event, the fact that we never quite care about Calnot a question of sympathy, but of baseline audience investmentmay reflect not just an error in Freundlich's judgment but an instance of miscasting.
What about Freundlich, though? Is he himself miscast, as a filmmaker? World Traveler, in its dour, uneven picaresque, keeps suggesting that Freundlich is a born short-story writer or portait sketcher; a medium demanding narrative-length pacing and character construction might be beyond him. As I said earlier, I do think back often to The Myth of Fingerprints, but only in the sense that stray moments still grip me; the film as a whole has largely drained from memory. But then again, in Freundlich's defesne, his dialogue already has a distinctive cadence after two films, his eye for casting supporting roles is very intriguing, and the people he writes, though their problems are nothing new, are not themselves overly clichéd. Moore's clenched anger in Myth and her spider-webby memory in World Traveler have unique textures. Though no other character in either film is as fully realized as hersDanner, as Moore's mother in Myth, and Cleavant Derricks as Cal's temporary buddy in World Traveler, come closestnone of them are washouts. I, for one, hope Freundlich gets another shot at a feature. And if he gets it, I hope he proves he knows what to do with it.