(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2002)
I suspect that on another day I might have described World Traveler as a big yawn, but sometimes things click, and a movie ends up seeming more interesting than it may deserve. The film stars Billy Crudup as a New York architect, drifting along in a nice apartment with his wife and three-year-old son. One day he’s at home preparing for his kid’s birthday party, and he impulsively decides to take off. He works on a construction site for a while, drinks a lot, has some flings, behaves in a generally scuzzy way. Then he tries to do someone a good turn, but it ends badly. Lurking in the background of all this is the memory of his father, who’d walked out on Crudup as a kid.
Billy Crudup now seems firmly established as an actor who isn’t quite going to make it. This is a highly relative statement – he gets lead roles in interesting films, presumably makes tons of money. But he doesn’t seem to have evoked the cultural or commercial excitement that would make him into a Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. Maybe it’s that he isn’t quite ingratiating enough. World Traveler films him as though he were a screen icon, as though we already knew a lot about what goes on beneath his chiseled features, and just needed to stare for long enough to coax it to the surface. People frequently refer to his looks in the film – asking, for instance, whether he gets away with his misuse of women because he “looks like that.” It’s as though the answer to Crudup’s quest somehow rested here – instead of going on the road, he should just have looked in the mirror for longer.
In a drippier movie that would be a not-very-interesting narcissism. In World Traveler, it’s rather fascinating. The film is basically a road movie – one of the looser genres, and one which generally emphasizes the self-gratification of its protagonists. Although there may be a notional reason for their rootlessness – it’s much more about the thrill of being unencumbered, of constantly redefining the surroundings, of sex without obligation. World Traveler follows the conventional blueprint – Crudup’s journey is defined through a series of brief encounters. But they’re deliberately fragmented and abbreviated, left dangling, to an unusual, unsettling extent.
For sure, the movie relies far too much on a vague air of mysticism (Crudup seems to be attracted to such material – Jesus’ Son, Waking the Dead). It’s as though director Bart Freundlich thought the meaning of it all would be self-evident as long as the audience was prepared to concentrate hard enough. Just as (going back to Crudup’s looks) it often seems that beauty and sexiness, given our general preoccupation with them, must carry an enormous, transcendent premium.
At one point, Crudup meets an old schoolmate at an airport, who banters superficially before revealing a reserve of long-standing, bilious hatred for the kid who always had it too easy. He’s amazed that Crudup doesn’t seem to have changed in any way at all, and tries to make a taunt out of it. Momentarily it works, but the movie as a whole thwarts this argument because constancy doesn’t seem like a weakness here. And when Crudup finds his father, blankness rather than passion marks the reunion. The movie again goes through the motions – Crudup asks why he left, tries to push the emotional buttons – but there’s nothing there to extract, except a platitude about desiring a better life.
The film works its way to a relatively conventional climax, but the evasiveness of what came before leaves an impression. Although it’s hard to know if it’s the impression the film was aiming for.
Thirteen Conversations about One Thing should be a substantially more interesting film than World Traveler. It’s preoccupied with similar questions – the meaning of life, how to attain happiness (this is collectively the “one thing” of the title) – but it’s more ambitious. The film is organized into thirteen “chapters” built around five main characters (the actors include Amy Irving, John Turturro and Matthew McConaughey) who undergo various life challenges, and interact to greater or lesser degrees.
I found the film vastly over-designed, to the point where barely a moment goes by that isn’t marked by some handy aphorism or strenuous revelation. Nothing in the movie seems real or spontaneous, and most of it is pretty old-hat (the math teacher who finds real life isn’t as reliable as equations are; the arrogant lawyer who repents, etc.). The most entertaining sections are also the broadest and most convivial, in which Alan Arkin plays a cynical middle manager rubbed the wrong way by the perpetual sunniness of one of his underlings. His sections of the movie have a shambling, anecdotal feel to them that counteracts the film’s distinct frostiness.
It’s made by director Jill Sprecher, who on the evidence so far isn’t much of a chronicler of modern times. Her first film Clockwatchers was fairly funny, but completely unconvincing in its portrayal of corporate life – it looked as if Sprecher’s research consisted mostly of watching the 50’s Gregory Peck movie The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. That film, about an ad executive pondering his lot in life, doesn’t have much of a reputation now, but I think it’s rather fascinating. Come to think of it, it might equally have been the springboard for much of Thirteen Conversations. In the 50’s though, one could get away with such generalizing earnestness.
True, we’re not living in as reflective an age as you might hope for. In the average workplace, you don’t exactly have to be Michael Ignatieff to find yourself labeled as the resident intellectual oddball (you may detect some personal commentary here, but don’t worry about me – I tone it down enough to get by). And yet, I’m sure we’ve all done our share of musing on the meaning of it all, even if just in flashes of momentary doubt. Stepping off the subway for instance, you see someone who reminds you of something long buried, and the layers of reality shift disconcertingly, allowing you a fleeting but horrendously vivid glimpse of this undeniable truth; that it could all just be a dream.
Thirteen Conversations feels made by someone who’s pondered such things for about fifteen minutes, and assumes the audience has only pondered them for seven and a half. The difference is thought to represent revelation, but feels more like condescension.