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The Slow and the Awkward

by
Nathaniel
of the
FiLM EXPERiENCE


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.

World 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.

This 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.

Billy 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.

Surprisingly, 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.

It's 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 conclusion.

The 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 chosen.

Rat-a-tat-tappity-tap. Clack.

Like 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.

A 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.

There 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.

But 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 leading roles.

Clackity 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
CineScene