One woman wasn't enough. One road trip was.
Writer/director Bart Freundlich (The Myth of Fingerprints) takes us on a journey into one man's inner pain and self-discovery in this film. World Traveler was produced with financial support from Thinkfilm and the Independent Film Channel.
Facts of the Case
Cal (Billy Crudup—Almost Famous) seems to have a perfect life. He has a beautiful wife, a cute kid, and high-paying job that most people would die for. This being an independent film, he is also wrestling with inner turmoil that he hides from everyone else—a sense of restlessness and a need for…well, we don't know what, exactly, and neither does he. He leaves home on his son's third birthday and begins a cross-country road trip to try to answer some of his nagging questions about himself. His seemingly aimless trip brings him first to Pennsylvania, where he works as a carpenter and betrays the goodness in everyone who befriends him. He picks up an attractive young hitchhiker and continues on across the country, to Minneapolis, where he ditches her at the airport. He drives on, across South Dakota, where he finds a woman passed out in a bar in the middle of the afternoon. Her name is Dulcie (Julianne Moore—Boogie Nights), and when she comes to he learns that she must travel to Billings, Montana to take custody of her young son. Cal and Dulcie become traveling companions, until he starts to understand that her grasp on reality is none too solid.
As Cal heads on, it becomes clear that his journey across the country has not been as aimless as it has seemed. He finds himself in Oregon, in a small coastal town, where he makes contact with his father (David Keith—An Officer and a Gentleman), in an effort to figure out why Cal is the way he is, and perhaps begin to heal his inner pain.
World Traveler, with its voyage of self-discovery and healing, reminds me of other works with similar themes, such as Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony. Cal undertakes a figurative voyage as well as a literal one, and we see the characters in his life that blur by like so many mile markers along the interstate. As Cal searches for himself we see the loving family man turn into someone who manipulates and uses those around him, an obnoxious drunk, a serial womanizer. Director Bart Freundlich and Billy Crudup show us Cal's pain and his attempts to avoid it without ever making his adventures look fun or glamorous. There is a sense throughout the film that Cal finds his rebellion just as empty as his old lifestyle.
World Traveler's plot is fairly minimalist; it really feels more like a collection of vignettes from Cal's life and journey. As such, a heavy burden rests on Billy Crudup to make it all work as a whole. The demands on Crudup are huge; he is in almost every frame, and must provide an emotional center to the film. This is even more difficult because he is called upon to be a very unappealing, unsympathetic character for much of the movie. "Honest" is a word that is used far too often to describe movie acting, but no other word will do to describe Crudup's performance. Crudup never sugar coats the role, never shies away from giving the material exactly what it demands, even if it makes him look like a bad guy in the eyes of the audience.
The other memorable role in the film is Julianne Moore's Dulcie. Moore, like Crudup, holds nothing back and gives a fully realized emotional effort in her performance. Moore is excellent, especially as she reveals Dulcie's mental instability and adds another page to Cal's bizarre journey. Also turning in good performances are David Keith, whose surprisingly serene portrayal of Cal's father is an unexpected pleasure, and Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark), as one of Cal's early conquests in his voyage.
Columbia TriStar has given World Traveler a solid DVD presentation. The video transfer is solid and sharp, with vivid, faithful colors all across the spectrum. There is some evidence of edge enhancement from time to time, and some scenes where reds look a little over-saturated and maybe bleed a bit, but other than that the image looks very nice. Audio is well done as well, with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The surround channels are put to good use with subtle ambient sounds, such as cars passing by on a highway or the sound of ocean waves. There are some flaws, such as dialogue that sounds a little hollow early on in the film, but for the most part this is a good if unspectacular audio mix.
The main piece of value-added content on this disc is a commentary track featuring Freundlich, Moore, and cinematographer Terry Stacey. Freundlich and Stacey carry most of the track, with Moore only popping in later in the film for the time she is on screen. There is the usual talk about shooting on location, the production anecdotes, and so forth, but in addition to all this Freundlich really makes an effort to explain his film. He does a very good job of discussing his intentions, motivations, and meanings. As is typical of independent filmmakers, his commentary tends to be more substantive and informative than what one might find on a higher profile title.
In addition to the commentary track, we are treated to one deleted/alternate scene, which can be viewed with or without Freundlich's comments. The scene does not add much to the film, and it was a good idea to cut it, but it is good that Freundlich and Columbia made the effort to provide it for us, the DVD audience.
The final piece of extra content is a collection of three trailers: World Traveler, The Mystic Masseur, and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only real complaint about World Traveler might be the pacing. Freundlich's film moves slowly, to give Crudup's character ample time to develop, but it does feel at times that even Cal is waiting around for the next piece of his adventure to start.
Since there's not a lot else to complain about in World Traveler, I'll have to pick on something petty. Bart Freundlich, or someone working for him, has absolutely no sense of geography. Either that, or Crudup and Moore missed the same left turn at Albuquerque that Bugs Bunny is always talking about. They do all right until they hit Rapid City, South Dakota, and Mount Rushmore, but after that things deteriorate pretty quickly. Freundlich even speaks in the commentary track about the great continuity person they had on this production, and how she was in charge of keeping all the geography straight; if that's the case, they paid her way too much. I only know this because I've driven I-90 from western Minnesota to Billings, Montana so many times I could do it with my eyes closed, and have done so on occasion. However, I concede that this is my unique problem, and I'm sure no one else watching the film will even notice.
Audiences might notice, however, that it is snowing in Minnesota while every other location in the film is having shirt-sleeve weather, which is either a major continuity foul-up or a decision to play to an unfortunate stereotype, but I'll let it go for now.
World Traveler may not be completely original, but it is good introspective filmmaking with a compelling, if not always appealing, central character. The theme of self-discovery and self-healing is nothing new; on the contrary, it is this theme's universality that makes World Traveler resonate with the audience.
Not guilty! The disc, film, and filmmakers are free to go—assuming they can find their way home…
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track Featuring Director Bart Freundlich, DP Terry Stacey, and Actress Julianne Moore
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