The thing one will note first about Bart Freundlich’s sophomore feature is how beautiful it looks. Each shot is so carefully composed and artfully shot in brilliant widescreen and luminous colors that the result seems like a succession of glossy photos in a up-scale magazine. The problem is that it’s as devoid of content as such magazines inevitably are. “World Traveler” is a pretty but empty portrait of a vacuous character having what amount to an rather early midlife crisis that causes him to abandon his family and tour the country, leaving a succession of women with whom he has brief encounters in his wake; and its lack of narrative urgency, combined with its opaque message, makes it an irritating journey indeed. Like Freundlich’s first film, “The Myth of Fingerprints,” it will leave you impressed by the director’s visual sense but, in the end, emotionally unmoved.
Billy Crudup, looking and sounding rather like Jim Carrey trying to do a straight dramatic role, stars as Cal, a blankly handsome architect who unaccountably walks out on his wife and three-year old son (as well as their admittedly sterile New York apartment) and goes on a cross-country road trip. His first stop is a Pennsylvania town, where he takes a construction job, bonds with fellow worker Cal (Clevant Derricks) and engages none too happily with waitress Delores (Karen Allen). On the move again, he takes up for a time with a winsome college girl, whom he abandons at an airport, and for a longer while with a troubled woman named Dulcie (Julianne Moore), who’s in need of a ride to retrieve her son from her estranged husband. This episode ends with a dramatically inept twist that even the talented Moore can’t pull off, and shortly Cal is on his own again, eventually reaching his destination–an Oregon lake house where the time he spends with a fellow called Richard (David Keith) is meant to explain the motive behind his trip by bringing things full circle. The message seems to be that every person has to come to terms with his past, but needn’t be straitjacketed by it.
For the most part “World Traveler” is a maddeningly meandering movie, with pretensions to profundity that it never earns. It has some good moments–the confrontation that Cal has with a loquacious high school classmate (James Le Gros) comes off especially well–but ordinarily it’s just sluggish and opaque. Crudup doesn’t help matters with his bland, faceless performance. Freundlich and he both rely far too much on the actor’s good looks as a kind of dramatic shorthand; the narcissism reaches the point of absurdity when a couple of children approach Cal to inquire whether he’s a movie star. The normally reliable Moore is badly used, but Derricks, Allen, Mary McCormack and especially Le Gros are more successful. The script, however, gives them all thin gruel indeed.
For all the driving entailed in “World Traveler,” the picture doesn’t get very far or go very deep.