- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

''World Traveler" is a hapless independent feature about a fugitive family man.

Writer-director Bart Freundlich seems unable to write a lick, judging from his debut feature, "The Myth of Fingerprints," the successor to "World."

"World Traveler" have a way of never getting untracked, or escaping the opaque. It takes Mr. Freundlich a few scenes to separate the unconscious of his protagonist, Billy Crudup as a young architect called Cal, from waking reality. Once that separation is clarified, Mr. Freundlich drifts into other alleyways of reverie.

Cal abandons his wife and little boy on the day of the child's third birthday. His first stopover is Pennsylvania, where a waitress played by Karen Allen spots him as a sure thing. She becomes the first in a cycle of mysteriously complacent bed partners, a cycle that bottoms out when Cal guesses wrong about Dulcie, a basket case played by Julianne Moore.

The only intelligent thing Cal does in the entire odyssey from New York City to the Oregon coast is ditch Dulcie when she goes to pick up a birthday cake for her nonexistent little boy. This poignant stroke of delusion underlines that Dulcie has been inserted rather symbolically, as a distaff alter ego for wandering, irresponsible Cal.

While still in Pennsylvania, Cal gets a job at a construction site and treats a nice carpenter named Carl (Cleavant Derricks) shabbily. Carl is coaxed into loitering with Cal while he boozes after work hours. Mr. Freundlich does get one witty idea while doting on Cal as a compulsive lush and leech: Saloon jukeboxes keep playing Willie Nelson classics, and the sound of Willie reflecting on loss, infidelity and other stuff bugs Cal.

The sometimes inspired James LeGros seems to have improvised his portrayal of a former classmate who encounters Cal at an airport and takes the opportunity to get even for ancient slights. This episode provides a measure of relief for those who think Cal deserves a sound thrashing.

Officially, the odyssey conks out when Cal confronts his own runaway dad, played by David Keith, in a cabin near the Oregon coast. As a practical matter, the movie tanks in Pennsylvania and keeps struggling west. Mr. Freundlich's judgment even fails him as a tour guide: Cal misses the turn for Mount Rushmore.

Since the ability to write conversation escapes Mr. Freundlich coast-to-coast, the father-son showdown looms as a dubious culmination. Indeed, that heart-to-heart talk never materializes, obliging Cal to go mental again. He levitates over the Pacific while he imagines happy endings for all the people he encountered and then a no-harm, no-foul return to the nest in Manhattan.

At one point a pickup asks Cal, "Do you get away with this because you look like that?" Later another casual acquaintance asks, "Are you a movie star?" One of Mr. Freundlich's misconceptions is that the world takes it for granted that Mr. Crudup and Tom Cruise, another somewhat doll-like actor, are box-office rivals.

If anything, the distinguishing feature of Mr. Crudup's movie career to date has been the frequency with which he makes wrong-headed choices: "The Hi-Lo Country," "Waking the Dead," "Inventing the Abbots," "Without Limits," "Jesus' Son," "World Traveler."

I've thought this before, but maybe "World Traveler" is the silver-lining dud for Mr. Crudup. Again, it's difficult to imagine an actor committing himself to a weaker leading role.

1/2 *

TITLE: "World Traveler"

RATING: R (Emphasis on dissolute behavior, especially family abandonment, alcoholism and sexual promiscuity; occasional profanity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Bart Freundlich. Cinematography by Terry Stacey. Production design by Kevin Thompson. Costume design by Victoria Farrell.

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes


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