Writer-director Bart Freundlich detonates a controlled explosion under the myth of the cozy nuclear family in “World Traveler.” A road movie that questions whether the freeing balm of the open road may also be a myth bereft of healing power, pic follows a Manhattan husband and father who abruptly climbs into his station wagon and starts driving west solo on his son’s third birthday. Pic weaves a dreamy, borderline narcoleptic spell as boyish-but-bothered Billy Crudup weighs the serendipity of chance encounters against the tug of the responsibilities he’s left behind. Although occasionally both overwritten and overly symbolic, tale carries a satisfying emotional charge that will resonate for viewers who question society’s tacit insistence on getting on with life without attempting to elucidate the past. Properly promoted, pic should clock respectable mileage on the arthouse circuit.
Architect Cal (Crudup) picks up and leaves for no apparent reason, landing in a Pennsylvania town where a sympathetic waitress (Karen Allen) recommends him for a construction job. Fellow worker Carl (Clevant Derricks) extends a friendly welcome, and the two men become casual drinking buddies even though Carl fears the reaction of his formidable wife.
In his continuing travels, Cal drinks a lot of Scotch and meets a string of characters, some of whom are a tad too colorful and others of which are exactly right. Cal’s chance encounter at an airport with long-forgotten high school classmate Jack (terrifically thesped by James Le Gros in a written-to-order role), is a jewellike riff on the dents people leave in each others lives without both parties always being aware of the initial collision.
Something Jack says inspires Cal to take upscale barfly Dulcie (Julianne Moore) under his protection. As the mother of a young boy en route to retrieve her son from her estranged husband, Moore deftly pulls off a narrative development that might have been risible in less gifted hands.
Endeavoring to have a good time and live out the ultimate male fantasy, Cal is haunted every step of the way by a leaden sense of malaise. A recurring figure (David Keith) appears in daydreams and actual dreams in which Cal sometimes envisions himself acting in reckless or oblivious ways. Pic’s title takes on its full meaning when Cal reaches a particular spot in Oregon.
Keenly lensed and flowingly edited follow-up to helmer’s promising debut “The Myth of Fingerprints” continues to showcase his knack for conjuring moods and directing actors. The symbolism could be subtler at a few junctures, but the storytelling is measured and noble as pic explores the meaning of fatherhood and goes slumming on a few day trips down those roads not taken. The result is lyrical but not transcendent.
Nicely observed moments outweigh the slightly forced ones, but it is the strength of Crudup’s wounded perf that helps gloss over a few elements that feel less than organic. These include an amusement park visit with Moore that entails breaking into a storeroom and pushing pins into a too-conveniently situated map of the U.S.
In addition to handsome score by Clint Mansell, the country ballads and jukebox laments of Willie Nelson nicely underscore the proceedings. Alabama and Oregon ably stand in for all the stops along Cal’s journey.