It’s hard to be a young man with abandonment issues. This is the premise of Bart Freundlich’s World Traveler, in which a 30-something Manhattan architect finds his present life—with lovely wife and adoring three-year-old—unbearable. Poor Cal keeps remembering moments when his wife “forgives” him with some tender gesture, or worse, his son smiles so sweetly as to break your heart. Cal has the added burden of being played by Billy Crudup, which means he’s not only successful and well nurtured, but also very pretty. Oi. The angst.
Cal leaves this life at the start of World Traveler, driving off in his Volvo station wagon to go “find himself.” Actually, he’s looking for his father (David Keith—old enough to pay Bill Crudup’s father already…), who left him and his mother years ago, and who conveniently lives in Oregon, so that the journey might be protracted and profound. On some level, Cal in his restlessness resembles Hawthorne’s Wakefield, a man so darkly consumed by “the fearful risk of losing his place forever,” that he forsakes what he perceives to be his mundane existence for something else. Cal’s literal trip is slightly longer than Wakefield’s—he goes cross-country rather than across town—but the point is rather the same: his Real Journey is internal: he must come to terms with his own fears, of commitment, settling down, and most of all, his own limits.
But, just because the something else Cal seeks is by-definition elusive (and so, of course, actually indefinable) doesn’t mean that his decision to pursue it lacks urgency. The film opens with several shots—some in his head, some in his office—that intimate his apprehension that he might be doing a wrong thing. Still, his decision does come to look increasingly self-indulgent, especially as he keeps flashing back (or maybe it’s forward) to obvious guilt-images, wherein his son is ill or his wife is weeping, or his father is arresting him, in front of his wife and son, no less (this last image is easily my favorite, as it so perversely and neatly illustrates all kinds of unspoken parent-child anxieties, from both sides).
But if Cal is a Wakefield (or even a Dorothy, riding that puff of a twister), seeking what he already has but doesn’t know he has, he’s also a piece of cinematic text, in this case, a character in a rather standard road movie. to a standard road movie, involving encounters with ordinary and some extraordinary characters, all of whom have a little something to teach him, if he’s only paying attention. The first of these is a waitress (Karen Allen), with her own serial failed-relationship history. She wisely advises him, “Clear your head,” and hooks him up with a construction company, so he can do some head-clearing manual labor.
Here Cal meets the good-natured Carl (Cleavant Derricks, of the tv show, Sliders), a recovering alcoholic whom Cal convinces to go out boozing. After a few drinks, Carl observes that they’re almost the same person, and that if he only didn’t have that extra R in his name, then, well, they would be the same. Cut to the kitchen, where Carl’s wife (Mary McCormack) informs Cal that she’s put her husband to bed, that she’s unhappy with the whole drinking thing (she, like Carl, is AA), and that she’s wondering just why her husband wants to “be like” his new friend. “Maybe,” she says, “It’s the way you look.” There are probably too many ways to read this line, beginning with Cal’s exquisite face and (no small thing, given Carl’s blackness), his whiteness. But then Cal comes on to the wife and she has to rebuff him, which means that it’s time for him to move on. And her specific concern is never really elucidated.
Yet, World Traveler returns to the “problem” of Cal’s appearance, as several characters—including a couple of children who think he’s a “movie star”—remark on his beauty. This suggests that “he way he looks” is one reason for his apathy and aimlessness, that maybe things have been too easy for him, that he’s used to getting girls and whatever else he wants because he’s so stunning. This point becomes extra-clear when Cal runs into an old high school classmate, Jack (James Le Gros in Mr. Kotter’s hair), at the airport in Minneapolis. Though Jack apparently has a life now, he’s never forgotten how callous and callow the aptly Cal was back in the day. And he pronounces that, though Cal hasn’t changed a bit (he’s still as self-absorbed as he was 15 years ago), he now looks terrible for all his drinking. That, and Jack is sure that Cal has not “done one good thing” since high school.
Perhaps Jack harbors a little too much resentment to be healthy. And ironically (if that notion applies to this terminally earnest film), his comments only rouse Cal enough to abandon the young hitchhiker (Liane Balaban) he’s supposed to be waiting for at the airport. But if this scene doesn’t provide a turning point for Cal, it does lay out most all the film’s concerns: Cal must learn to be nicer, more generous, less fucked up. Lucky for him, and unlucky for her, the last person he meets before he reaches Oregon is Dulcie (Julianne Moore, Freundlich’s offscreen partner), an extremely damaged alcoholic who is pining for her own lost son.
While Cal imagines they have made a connection (they drink together, ride a Ferris wheel, and go to bed), she disintegrates pretty much in front of him, thus underlining his own complete inability to read other people and, no small thing, himself. Certainly, the image of his leaving this time—he drives off in a panic, leaving her screaming with smooshed ice cream cake on the sidewalk—is an especially painful one, in no small part because Moore has invested Dulcie with an emotional life beyond the scripted role. Also certainly, the cut to Cal in his car, beginning, at last, to weep for his abuses, is powerful. But this awful moment, haunting in an overt way, only underscores what the rest of the film does not do—make you care a whit about what happens to Cal.