Billy Crudup, currently electrifying Broadway as the tragic, genial, misunderstood John Merrick in The Elephant Man , offers further proof of his unique talent for playing tortured, virile and sensitive men in the new film World Traveler . This is a small independent feature, too intelligently written and carefully directed by Bart Freundlich ( The Myth of Fingerprints ) to cause much of a revolution at the box office. But for demanding tastes, it’s a profound, honest, superbly made, emotionally gripping, moment-by-moment road movie about a man trapped in a midlife crisis that is something of a revelation.
Mr. Crudup plays Cal, a thirtysomething New York architect with a wife and son for whom everything seems to come easily in life. Handsome, charming and successful, Cal wakes one morning, climbs into his Volvo station wagon, deserts his family, chucks his career and starts to drive across the American landscape. It takes a leisurely amount of time before we know why Cal is leaving home or where he’s headed, and Mr. Freundlich is in no hurry to clue us in. Most of the movie takes place on the highway, where this fugitive from the macho middle-class moves from encounter to encounter, job to job and bed to bed, in search of his elusive inner self.
On the open road, Cal meets a friendly waitress (Karen Allen) who thinks men are “a temporary state of mind.” He works on a construction crew, where he bonds with a new buddy (Cleavant Derricks), only to betray him by seducing his wife and leading him to ruin his perfect record at Alcoholics Anonymous. Cal sleeps with strangers but feels nothing. He picks up a young hitchhiker, then deserts her in an airport. He runs into an obnoxious old friend from high school (James LeGros) who bores, menaces and insults him. Finally, he meets his match in a beautiful mystery woman (Julianne Moore) who is as screwy and dangerous as she is charismatic. First he indulges his new sense of freedom and unaccountability, then he tries to improve his unhappy life by helping someone else, but every move is thwarted by failure.
Cal is a child-man, running away from marriage, fatherhood, stress and responsibility, searching for clues to his identity that will explain his past and define his future. Like the rudderless males in John O’Hara and John Updike, and especially the bewildered, deluded central character in John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” Cal is searching for a better life, free of the stereotypical behavior that society expects from middle-aged men, but eventually he comes to realize that the most important change must come from within. The odyssey ends in a mountain cabin where he meets, after years of estrangement, the father who similarly deserted Cal when he was a boy. In the tense, warm and tender scenes between Cal and his father (beautifully played by the always excellent David Keith), the sections of Cal’s life finally fit, like the mislaid pieces of a jigsaw puzzle gathering dust in an attic that hasn’t been swept for years.
Billy Crudup has a remarkable skill for blending unsympathetic toughness with coltish vulnerability. He’s not afraid to show the controversial undertones of an unsympathetic character at the risk of distancing his audience. Alternately, Cal is beaten, broken-hearted, lonely, arrogant, selfish, enraged and desperately confused. It’s a James Dean role and, man or woman, you want to save him. Oblivious to Cal’s likability, Mr. Crudup is so fully immersed in the road trip inside his own heart that Cal’s eventual redemption seems more like the natural outcome of fate than a scriptwriter’s conclusion, and the journey has a refreshing resistance to clichés. Julianne Moore is equally memorable as the woman who seems at first to be Cal’s fellow world traveler, but who eventually reveals herself as a mirror image of the alarming casualty he’s in danger of becoming. It’s a small but vital role, and Ms. Moore illuminates every complex nuance. Her quirky appeal has resonance, but the tragedy beneath the surface of her beauty and eccentricity is the catalytic converter in World Traveler that steers Cal’s engine back in the right direction toward home.
Case of Winslet’s Missing Roomie
Even with my special fondness for (and overexposure to) World War II spy thrillers, I discovered new intrigues in Enigma , a slick wartime mystery written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Michael Apted that is sexy, enthralling and suspenseful enough to keep you clutching the edge of your seat. Set in the top-secret confines of Bletchley Park, an enclave north of London where as many as 10,000 people were employed cracking the German codes and aiding in the Allied victory, Enigma is both a ripping romantic adventure and an inspiring tribute to the odd, unconventional and unsung heroes whose innovations helped shorten the war and paved the way for today’s computer generation. It is also a terrifically scary historical whodunit.
The year is 1943; the setting is the center of Britain’s undercover code-breaking operations. While convoys of merchant ships head for the missile sights of German U-boats in the North Atlantic, U.K. intelligence is blacked out. The best minds in England-a motley assortment of mathematics nerds, translators, electrical engineers and winners of crossword-puzzle competitions-assemble at Bletchley Park with only four days to break the enemy codes. The “Enigma” is the machine that can do it. The Germans have thousands of them; the Brits have only one. (You can see it if you visit Bletchley Park, which is now home to a war museum.) But the German navy has suddenly changed the Enigma codes, and the British and American intelligence teams must decode the new cryptograms before the Allies lose the war at sea.
The main man for the job is Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), an eccentric, unstable mathematician who has been on a forced leave of absence after a nervous breakdown. Jericho returns to find that his glamorous girlfriend Claire (alluring, elusive Saffron Burrows) is a suspected spy who has intercepted German codes and hidden them in a loose floorboard in her rooming house. Now she’s disappeared and is believed to be a murder victim. But why?
With the aid of Claire’s roommate Hester (Kate Winslet), a file clerk who looks like an overage Girl Scout, Tom uncovers secret agents, double agents and a plot to save the Kremlin embarrassment by covering up the Katyn massacre in Poland (in which the Russians massacred hundreds of Polish soldiers and army officers-an atrocity that was never officially admitted until 1990), while launching a round-the-clock investigation to find out what happened to the vanished Claire. There is so much technical mumbo-jumbo you’d need to be a code-breaker yourself just to decipher all the jargon, but it’s fascinating to watch Kate Winslet, in horn-rimmed glasses and mousy brown hair, and Dougray Scott, battling a casebook of mental disorders, while they do their detective work-as well as Jeremy Northam as the wily, sinister intelligence agent who suspects everyone of murder and treason.
The sleuthing eventually reveals a new kind of villain-a handsome espionage agent who selfishly fights his own enemy (Stalin, who was then Britain’s ally) by secretly helping Britain’s enemy (Hitler, whose bombs were falling on London). Despite a maddeningly complex plot, Michael Apted’s talent for narrative nicely balances the Enigma code with the enigma of Claire’s disappearance, and the expert cast and Tom Stoppard’s literate script help immensely to make perfect sense of the whole thing. Played out against the lush rolling hills of England, the shimmering lochs of Scotland and the bustle of postwar London, Enigma delivers a lot to look at while you’re being entertained. The epilogue, set in Trafalgar Square after the war, is as jolting as it gets in the movies. Compelling, intriguing and watchable in the best old-fashioned sense, Enigma visits spy-movie territory like a novel you can’t put down, examines a footnote to history seldom brought to light on the screen, and keeps you guessing from first frame to last.
Only my unflagging loyalty to Tim Robbins could force me through an odious dunghill like Human Nature . Music videos have done more damage to modern filmmaking than Lars von Trier; their byproducts include writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, creators of the idiotic Being John Malkovich . As much as I hated that one, I didn’t know I had it so good. Now Mr. Kaufman, working with another smudge-brain director of videos and commercials named Michel Gondry, is polluting the ozone with the ultimate cloaca maximus.
The fearless Patricia Arquette plays a monkey woman named Lila Jute who is covered with body hair and trapped in a jail of blood, tissue and hormones that have turned her into a social outcast. Tired of shaving the fur from her breasts and toes, Lila heads for the woods and writes nature books until she is discovered hanging from a tree by a nerdy behavioral scientist with an abnormally small penis (Tim Robbins in the worst role of his life) who teaches table manners to mice. Thanks to electrolysis, love blossoms between them-until they come across a man raised by apes (emaciated weirdo Rhys Ifans, from Notting Hill ). She’s fascinated: one of her own at last. The doctor, however, dresses the walking orangutan in diapers, names him Puff and teaches him to read Yeats, listen to Puccini and order foie gras.
All Puff wants to do is get laid-which gives the oddly assembled Mr. Ifans a chance to grunt, pant, scratch his underarms and masturbate endlessly. No wonder Ms. Arquette ends up pumping a .38-caliber bullet through the middle of Mr. Robbins’ head. It’s supposed to be funny, but it’s all squeamishly pathetic in a freaked-out way, as the actors are reduced to primates and the movie makes no sense at all.
A desperate warning lurks somewhere in this swill that it’s only a matter of time before human sexual response is controlled by electronic impulses, but it’s all meaningless unless we’re provided with proof that civilization is the best gauge for separating people from chimps. In this mixed-up mess, everyone will side with the chimps-they have the best erections. As for the pointless title, you’ll see more human nature in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo.