On the road with Billy Crudup may be an adventure for some but this plodding, episodic series of ministories, held together by miles and miles of miles and miles won't do it for everyone. It will help if you think he's as appealing as some of the women in the story do -- there's no denying a charismatic force when you see one -- but this journey, the real purpose of it hidden until the last act, makes 103 minutes seem like 206.
Cal (Crudup) is a Manhattan architect with a wife and 3-year old son who, for a largely unexplained reason, is discontent. His interior landscape is intense and all his own as he revels in the brooding inner drive that propels him to abandon his family and set out on the road. To help convey some kind of mental anguish the film uses hallucinatory images, flashbacks, time phase cuts and other borrowings from films like the successful "Memento" though without its consistency or effectiveness.
In his Volvo station wagon cross-country adventure, his stops are bars, motels, bars, airport terminals and bars. He indulges in drink, self absorption, sexual encounters, and a hallucination come to life in the guise of a high-school chum who just happens to cross his path. From this incredible example of coincidence writer-director Bart Freundlich gives us psychological profile on his hero, pounding out features we don't get to see in the rest of the movie.
We also get to meet Dulcie (Julianne Moore and Freundlich's better half) as a traveler who stumbles from drunken stupor to delusional coherence; Liane Balaban as Meg, a free spirited hitchhiker that could land a man in jail; Cleavant Derricks as Carl, a recovering alcoholic who befriends Cal and loses his sobriety as a result; Karen Allen as Delores, a waitress whose immediate attraction to Cal is designed to prove the ladykiller aspect of the much praised hero; and James leGros as Jack, a thoroughly obnoxious high school chum who feeds this fantasy by repeating how much Cal hasn't changed since his school years.
David Keith plays Richard, the mystery man who provides the context for the mileage.
If you're getting the idea that this is a self-gratifying bit of moviemaking with a personal if not dramatic story to tell, and is told by someone who is insecure about how to get his pseudo-psychological points across, you'd be on the right highway marker. It's cluttered with hints at what it's all about for the first two thirds, confusing innuendo with fascination, cloudiness with drama. Freundlich would have served his story and character better by telling us more from the outset.
Performances are pro with Billy Crudup serving us another in his line of strong silent heros in obscure films by obscure filmmakers. Either he's having trouble landing leading roles in mainstream movies or he just favors the small, independent efforts of the stylized and personal, like his FH in Jesus' Son (1999). Perhaps his most successful of these outings was his Pete Calder in 1998's noir western, "The Hi-Lo Country", a fascinating bit of movie making for a limited audience.
That he can land noteable mainstream roles is evidenced by his Julien Lavade in 2001's "Charlotte Gray", but he seems to be a serious actor who needs to get his chops around a role that pleases his aesthetics, which is not always in harmony with successful ventures. It's hard to imagine, though, what he saw in this self-pitying, shallow role. Unfortunately, it may have sunk his chances for better material considering the fact that he didn't do a film in all of 2002. Given his talent for hard-edged intensity, is as much our loss as his.
The real failure here, however, stems from the vapid, hollow pen of writer-director-producer Freundlich. He didn't prove much in his 1997 outing, "The Myth of Fingerprints" and he doesn't do anything here to revive interest in his work in future. He, too, lacked an assignment in all of 2002 but it's the less interesting of the two stats.