The Slow and
Bart Freundlich has unresolved father issues. Or, at least, every character
he's ever created does. Either way, this writer/director's sophomore
effort, World Traveler, marks a continuing thematic interest
in parent/child dysfunction, which began in his debut, the 1997 Thanksgiving
drama The Myth of Fingerprints. That film marked the beginning
of his partnership with the great Julianne Moore. I hope that Freundlich
realizes how fortuitous this partnership has been. Without her contributions,
in supporting roles in both films, the clumsy, bloodless quality of
his psychology becomes much more evident.
Traveler begins well, with a hauntingly designed title sequence
and prologue, as a father - your anti-hero Cal, played by Billy Crudup
- suddenly abandons his wife and three-year-old son without so much
as a note. After that the camera, and therefore the audience, basically
jumps in the car with Cal for his journey on the open road. The film
unfolds chapter-like, with the selfish Cal meeting strangers who all
teach him something, as he moves on to the next town and drives further
and further away from his responsibilities.
is first and foremost a road movie, which means that, whatever else
it is ostensibly about (in this case, fathers and sons) it is primarily
a journey towards enlightenment or self-discovery. The genre has been
popular since the dawn of time and seems to be catnip to both actors
and writers who like exploring themes through character arcs. The obstacle
this particular entry in the genre faces is that Cal is not in any way
someone that audiences can identify with or root for.
Crudup is a beautiful man and an even better actor, but as his stardom
has grown, he has become infamous for running like hell from it. Turning
down the lead role in a sure blockbuster like 2003's The Hulk
in favor of small films and theatrical ventures like his role in Broadway's
The Elephant Man was the most famous recent example of his reluctance
to truly go Hollywood. This could account for his sometimes opaque characterizations.
While he is occasionally interesting to watch here, in order to work,
this sort of character requires an almost faultless performance. The
actor either has to keep the audience inside his character's head (something
like what Jodie Foster was doing in Silence of the Lambs) or
keep them the hell out (what Julianne Moore did so mesmerizingly in
Safe.) But here Crudup seems to be going for the latter unknowable
angle, without the magnetism such a performance requires in order to
work. Atempting a performance of this sort without the safety net of
a precise and disciplined script can unfortunately read as lazy. And
so Cal remains throughout the picture, both frustratingly unreadable
and highly unlikeable. That's a lethal combination when you're required
to spend two hours with someone in a car.
the great void that is Cal is very nearly redeemed by one particular
chapter in his journey and one particular actor in the film. Julianne
Moore's sudden entrance about two thirds in proves an irreplaceable
contribution to the film. She plays Dulcie, a drunk possible nutcase
that Cal meets in a bar on his long directionless journey across America.
I've been a fan of Moore's work for a long time and I've seen all of
her films. By now, Moore's bag of performance tricks have become slightly
familiar, but there's still no denying their screen potency. You can
watch her, think you know what she's doing, and still fall unknowingly
under her spell. She is, without question, one of the great screen actors.
If Dulcie is a minor character in her impressive roster of roles, she's
still essential to the film and Julianne Moore is irresistible in the
part. For a moment the film's ominous underlying theme, parental panic,
roars to the surface with great immediacy and clarity.
too bad that the rest of the picture takes her cue so literally. After
her brief appearance, the ponderous journey becomes an increasingly
obvious exploration of the theme that Dulcie and Moore have already
made abundantly clear. I wish that the picture had ended sooner than
it does. Instead, Cal's journey continues, and the screenplay heads
into spell-it-out-for-us territory as it drives towards its too tidy
case here for Mr. Freundlich? Well, the jury is still out. I'm not prepared
to write him off, as many critics have in the wake of this film. But
I came close during certain sections of this misfire. One thing is clear
- he needs to hang on to Ms Moore with all his might. Or at the very
least, he needs to find other perfomers like her who emphasize his obvious
strengths in character creation and flexible but serious thematics.
Ideally those performers will also, like Moore, prove as counterweight
to his weaknesses - his obviousness, pretense, and lack of humor. If
he can find a company of actors like that, then his career will continue
to chug along while he works out the kinks in his filmmaking abilities.
Rat-a-tat-tat. Clackity-clack.Whrrrr-tap. There's
lots of Morse code noise clacking away in the background of the WorldWar
II espionage thriller Enigma. I use the word "thriller"
lightly here, because there's not much to set the heart racing. The
film comes to you courtesy of director Michael Apted and writer Tom
Stoppard, neither of them apparently inspired by the material they've
many behind-the-scenes tales of war and espionage, this film is chock
full of expositional dialogue. The title refers to a machine that transformed
basic text into coded text and then changed it back again once it had
the right translation code coordinates to do so. It was used so that
the German armed forces could communicate secretly without fear of interception
from their enemies. But since a glorified typewriter/early computer
is not an interesting visual conceit, the story of the machine and the
truths it shelters is told through the beautiful people who swirl around
it, typing and deciphering away. They turn it on and off. They connect
cords to it. They enthusiastically attempt to decipher its hidden messages.
They curse at it and show their exasperation. But mostly they talk and
talk. And then talk some more. Zzzzzzzz-zzzz-zzz.
confession here before I continue: I do tend to tune out a little when
watching this sort of thing. I barely got through The Russia House,
which select fans of this genre consider something of a miniclassic.
My principal problem here is that the characters are always jabbering
away about some crucial time frame, life and death matters, and movements
of enemy and ally ships. But aside from some clumsily inserted footage
of submarines, this talk is all abstraction. For the events about which
we're supposed to care are all taking place offscreen. We have only
the script and the actors to keep the action going, mentally. If the
script and the actors aren't enormously fascinating to listen to and
watch, a complex offscreen narrative just doesn't thrill.
Tappity tap-tap tappity.
are things to enjoy here, though, amidst the dull surroundings. Aside
from the editing, which seems a bit clumsy -perhaps mirroring the overall
construction of the story - the technical aspects are all fine. The
collective ensemble acting is a little uneven, but two performers fly
high above the crowd. Jeremy Northam bites amusingly into his slightly
sinister role as a suspicious investigator. He's marvelously fun to
watch. The effortlessly magnetic Kate Winslet is also game for her role
as the frumpy office worker, Hester. The role isn't much really, but
she invests it with her considerable charm and sly interpretation. Whenever
she's onscreen, the picture seems momentarily to click, all its gears
quickly churning toward the thrills it so wants to deliver. As ever,
Ms Winslet seems unable to deliver mediocre work, no matter what she
has to work with.
even these two witty performers are unable to compensate for what the
picture so sorely lacks in other areas. The awkward script and the lack
of charisma from the lead performers deprive the film of any soul or
urgency that it needs. Dougray Scott and Saffron Burrows are both reasonably
good actors. But unfortunately, at this point in their careers they
both seem cursed by their looks. Their beauty falls firmly into the
lead category, but they don't have the magnetism required to sustain
clack -Whrrrr-tap-tap. The clunky old school noises that you hear all
throughout the picture are issuing forth from ancient upright thinking
machines. early computers, as it were. You can see them in the background
of the film's many war office scenes. These noisy machines couldn't
be a more apt visual and aural metaphor for what's going on in the foreground,
either. Lots of effort and intelligence are on display but in execution
it is all awkward, static, and lifeless rumblings.
©2002 Nathaniel Rogers