(director/writer/producer: Bart Freundlich; cinematographer: Terry Stacey; editor: Kate Sanford; music: Clint Mansell; cast: Billy Crudup (Cal), Julianne Moore (Dulcie), Cleavant Derricks (Carl), Liane Balaban (Meg), David Keith (Richard), Mary McCormack (Margaret), Karen Allen (Delores), James LeGros (Jack); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Tim Perell; ThinkFilm; 2001)

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“The only reason for watching such a shallow and worn drama is because of Crudup’s subtle performance.”

Bart Freundlich (“The Myth of Fingerprints“) directs and writes the screenplay to what seems like just another dysfunctional family drama, one that too easily becomes blurred with all the other similar tales of woe. It’s about a young, self-absorbed New York architect named Cal (Billy Crudup) who suddenly hops into his Volvo station wagon and abandons his wife and young son Leo on his birthday without a word. He goes on the road for a cross-country journey, where in his aimless adventure he encounters a host of archetypal characters in many different states.

All “World Traveler” lets us know at first is that Crudup’s a deeply troubled lost soul, an alcoholic, has a mean streak, can be obnoxious, and has movie-star good looks that attracts women even though he’s a downer. He’s a cipher. A mysterious character who is in search of some dark secret about himself and who is so warped that he keeps running away from others. World Traveler never recovers from its sluggish start and when it finally attempts to say what all the fuss was about, the payoff comes in a trite pop psychological response relating to Crudup’s dysfunctional family.

The melodramatics were awkwardly presented, and the film only seemed hopeful when it was most lost and confused–at least there was the promise of something to arise from Crudup’s anti-hero nasty guy role. But in the end, all the film can come up with is that the Crudup character is redeemable because he’s not such a bad dude after all.

On the road, Crudup meets a four-time married young waitress Delores (Allen) in Pennsylvania, who tells him “men are a temporary state of mind.” She hooks him up with a construction job to keep him in town, where he meets Carl (Cleavant Derricks). The black man is a recovered alcoholic married to a white woman who is also a recovered alcoholic. Cal, out of spite, misuses Carl’s friendship and gets him drunk and makes a half-hearted pass at his wife. She astutely cuts him off and says he’s no friend of Carl’s.

On his next stop Crudup meets a sweet young hitchhiker, Meg (Liane Balaban), and offers to take her out west, but has a change of mind at the Minneaopolis airport and deserts her. At the airport he meets a high school classmate, Jack (LeGros), who buys him drinks and after pretending to be friendly unwinds on the contemptuous Cal by telling him how little he thinks of him.

Dulcie enters the film at the 50-minute mark. She’s played in a shrill and unaffecting manner by Julianne Moore, sporting dyed brown hair and a phony Southern accent. Cal is drawn to her when he spots her drunk and passed out in the same bar he’s getting loaded in. Rather than have the cops take her in, he takes her back to his motel where she tells him a tale of how her hubby is also an architect and that she’s run away with his money. She’s heading for Billings, Montana, to meet her 7-year-son who is traveling alone. She wants to meet him there before her hubby, and thereby take him with her. It turns out that she’s crazy, probably escaped from an institution or a caretaker. Crudup’s attempt to help her is the first good deed he did on the journey without a selfish reason. But when she pretends they have the child with them in the car and goes to a Dairy Queen to buy him a birthday cake, he leaves her while she’s yelling that you’ve taken my child.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

In the last 20 minutes, after repeatedly hearing Willie Nelson’s song “Across the Borderline,” which is similar to the film’s theme and easier to handle I might add, played in several bars where Crudup frequented, the film at last arrives at where it was going. Cal drives to the coast of Oregon and reacquaints himself with his estranged father Richard (David Keith). His father deserted the family when he was 12, which turns out to be the reason he’s so goofed up (Where have I heard that one before?). He sees his dad for the first time since, because he wants to know why his dad left. Dad tells him without batting an eye, “He was just looking for a better life.” The next morning Cal drives back to the Big Apple, where his lovely wife and son have been sitting around the apartment staring into space (Maybe they were waiting for Godot!). It seems he now also wants a better life (the film never even came close to showing this as true).

The only reason for watching such a shallow and worn drama is because of Crudup’s subtle performance and how he deftly moves through the thin script by masking himself in deeply drawn-out inner psychological twists that give his character a somewhat fresh feel.

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