Appellate Judge James A. Stewart wrote this review on a napkin in a Peruvian cafe.
"I keep thinking of how people at home are going to work or school or whatever they do and how they're missing out on all of this."
Of course, those of us who stay home don't miss out on everything. We may sit back in our armchairs, but we can watch travel shows like Michael Palin's Around the World in 80 Days or Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. We get a taste of adventure, and the adventurers get someone to foot the bill through DVD sales and ad revenues on TV. It's a good system.
If you can't get enough of a travel fix from watching real-life travelers on TV, there are also fictional travelogues in the movies. The latest is called The Art of Travel. Shot on location in Nicaragua, Colombia, Panama, and Peru, it seems like it might turn out to be a Generation Y interpretation of Peter Mayleism, but it takes a few turns along the way.
Facts of the Case
Even on his wedding day, Conner Layne's mother (Maria Conchita Alonso, The Running Man) is trying to talk him out of getting married. She doesn't seem to be getting through to him, but Conner (Christopher Masterson, Malcolm in the Middle) has a few surprises in store. Mom might have preferred the wedding—and the messy divorce—to Conner's distribution of the photos from his fiancee's tryst with the best man at the church and his departure for parts unknown, in this case Nicaragua.
His stay in Managua doesn't go so well—his hotel room is burgled and he's robbed on the street, and the bleak hotel rooms themselves are nothing to write home about—or phone home about.
When Conner calls his parents, he's about ready to pack it in, an idea Mom seconds. However, Dad has different advice: "You've never run away from anything you were afraid of before. Why start now?"
By the end of the summer, Conner has made it to Panama, where he meets Christopher (Johnny Messner, Tears of the Sun) and Darlene (Brooke Burns, Baywatch), who are planning to cross the Darien Gap in record time. They invite Conner to join their expedition, but he's due back at Berkeley in a few days and, "Everything I've heard about the Darien is not good." Naturally, he thinks over his situation with time-honored movie logic, and he meets the couple at the airstrip to head off into the jungle.
His companions on the expedition rechristen him "Roadkill," but he's not so easily conquered. He's also going to conquer the heart of Anna (Angelika Baran), the lone single female on the expedition. Yeah, right. But the road to romance might be bumpier than the road they're hacking out with machetes through the jungle.
At first, I didn't expect much from The Art of Travel. The jokes early on drew a few smiles rather than belly laughs, and it seemed like it was going to turn into a mild travelogue. Still, I wanted to see what happened to this guy.
When The Art of Travel shifted to the jungle expedition, it took on a new energy. As Conner bonded with his fellow adventurers (a merry band who like to put their pet tarantula in a newcomer's bed) and started his learning of life lessons, the story started to feel more like a traveler's journey depicted on the screen. I was thinking that this must be based on some real-life travel account I hadn't heard of. While it has standard movie moments, it also has moments that seem like they came from some outside source material, maybe even life.
It helps that Christopher Masterson has a natural self-deprecating style that makes us put up with him through his overly naive stage at the film's start and actually gave me the feeling that he was really learning something, rather than going through the typical movie motions. Also helpful was a strong supporting cast; the hysterical mother, the love interest, and the adventurers grow into real characters as well.
Director (and co-writer) Thomas Whelan's understated style makes the journey at the center of the movie exciting and fresh. At times, The Art of Travel slows down, but it feels like that's only to lull viewers into complacency to make the next shift in direction a surprise.
The Art of Travel looks beautiful, especially in the pure travelogue views near the end. Even the slums of Managua look graceful and inviting with the fine cinematography. Natural sounds, whether in the street or in the jungle, sound natural.
The movie's rated R for nudity and a lot of swearing. Of course, you might swear yourself if your Jeep was stuck in the jungle somewhere between Panama and Colombia.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Art of Travel has an adventurous spirit; it doesn't turn out to be an ordinary travelogue movie. If you're expecting A Good Year, forget it.
Also, the movie's best moments are found in the middle, as Conner and friends make their way through the jungle. A nice romance that would entertain in a more lightweight picture comes across as dull after that.
There's also a shocking lack of extras. You'll want to know how this movie came about and what the filmmakers experienced as they were shooting it. You won't find out on this DVD. Yes, there are webisodes online, but I'd like them handy.
As Conner writes on a napkin at one point, "The art of travel is to deviate from one's plans." If you're willing to deviate from the standard pat ending, The Art of Travel can be a rewarding movie.
The dreams it conjures aren't as cozy as a dinner party in Provence, but The Art of Travel will likely appeal to anyone who's gone adventuring vicariously with Anthony Bourdain or any number of his traveling brethren.
Not guilty, although the distributors deserve a tarantula in their bed for failing to include any extras on the DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
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