"World Traveler" opens with a collage of disturbing images, the symbolic meaning of which becomes clear by the time this subtle, elliptical road movie reaches its destination.
Written and directed by Bart Freundlich, it stars Billy Crudup as a successful architect in his early 30s with a beautiful wife, adorable little son and a tasteful West Village apartment. Perhaps because all of this has come too easily for Crudup's Cal, he starts feeling so suffocated that he is driven to drop out and hit the road in search of answers.
The film is perhaps best enjoyed as a minor work with some major pluses, notably in the characterizations and in their adroit portrayals. As intelligent and sophisticated as it is, it is not so complex or original as Freundlich, who made his 1997 feature debut with the family drama "The Myth of Fingerprints," might have wished. Its principal asset is Crudup, who is unafraid to reveal Cal's immaturity and self-absorption. Heading West, he first stops over in a western Pennsylvania town, persuaded to stay long enough to pull himself together by a sympathetic and very available diner waitress (Karen Allen). Cal longs for human contact but essentially thinks only of his own needs, although he is constantly haunted by the wife and son he has deserted. The moment he thinks he's being hedged in or made to feel overly responsible for another person's welfare, he moves on.
At first Cal seems to be crossing the continent aimlessly, but (quite possibly subconsciously) he would seem to have a specific destination after all, which ultimately proves pivotal for him and gives the film its meaning.
Along the way, he meets some memorable people. Besides Allen there is Cleavant Derricks as a construction worker too kindly for his own good and Mary McCormack as his no-nonsense wife; a pretty, carefree hitchhiker (Liane Baliban); and a high school classmate (James LeGros) who has held a grudge against him for 15 years.
Most important are a lengthy encounter with a runaway wife (Julianne Moore) who has bigger problems than Cal at first realizes, and with his long-estranged father (David Keith). Moore brings a commanding presence and depth to this glamorous but reckless, deeply troubled woman, and Keith is wonderfully reserved.
Indeed, all of Cal's encounters are beautifully drawn vignettes. "World Traveler" has an inviting look and feel, and the soundtrack features a number of well-chosen Willie Nelson songs.
MPAA rating: R, for language and some sexuality. Times guidelines: adult themes and situations plus heavy drinking.
A ThinkFilm presentation. Writer-director Bart Freundlich. Producers Tim Perell, Freundlich. Executive producers Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan. Cinematographer Terry Stacey. Editor Kate Sanford. Costumes Victoria Farrell. Production designer Kevin Thompson. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
At selected theaters.