written and directed by Bart Freundlich with Billy Crudup and Julianne Moore opens May 10 at Varsity
CAL DOESN'T seem a likely candidate for redemption. Locking his son's third-birthday balloons behind the door, the architect slinks away from his contented Manhattan family and starts driving with no clear destination. We never learn what Cal's running from, and nor does he. Instead, he simply drinks and screws his way west, giving himself over to adolescent id and leaving wrecked lives in his wake.
Blame Jack Nicholson. World Traveler invites comparison with his old rogue-on-the-road movies, even concluding with an estranged father in the Pacific Northwest (just like Five Easy Pieces). This heavy-handedness makes Traveler a morose exercise in the overwrought and the obvious. (Its too-literal dream sequences actually convey Cal's anxiety and guilt with shackles!)
Presumably Cal (Billy Crudup of Almost Famous) is a tortured soul, and his treacherous behavior signifies his torment. He befriends Carl, a cheerfully married man, only to become, first, his tempter into sin, then his betrayer. From there, he continues to make and abandon commitments to still more characters—symbolizing his mangled psyche—all the way into the arid plains.
By the time Cal meets Dulcie (Julianne Moore, director Bart Freundlich's girlfriend), a fellow drifter who (she claims) is running from her husband, he's desperate to do "one good thing" and resolves to take her to Montana to get her son. But once it becomes clear what help Dulcie really needs, Cal fails that test, too.
Traveler's message is plain: Flight offers no salvation, and we must find redemption within. Yet while Nicholson convinced us that decency lay buried beneath his coarse cynicism, Cal's sleek beauty only conceals a prick. When he finally gets to the ocean, all we wish is that he keep driving and drown.