Two for the Road, Heading In Different Directions
Friday, May 10, 2002
Two examples of the road picture open in theaters today, and they embody the poles at which the genre traditionally lives: The carefree, picaresque tale of adventure and romance and its darker cousin, the existential journey of a character yearning for deeper meaning. Maybe it's the time of year, but of this week's offerings the sunnier movie is by far the more successful.
"Im Juli," by German director Fatih Akin, stars Moritz Bleibtreu as Daniel, a mild-mannered physics teacher in a Hamburg high school who is contemplating a quiet summer vacation when he meets an exotic itinerant jewelry seller named Juli (Christiane Paul). After some provocative words about fate and love the two part, and soon Daniel crosses paths with Melek (Mehmet Kurtulus), another wayfaring stunner who happens to be on her way to Istanbul. Recalling his conversation with Juli, Daniel decides that Melek is the love of his life, and vows to follow her to Turkey. His week-long sojourn to that country will provide him with a lively series of travel-mates, unexpected detours and life-changing coincidences.
The theme of the role fate plays in finding the love of your life is a number so hoary it should be retired, but Akin displays a talent for crisp storytelling, bravura camera work and good casting so that "Im Juli" feels surprisingly fresh. Bleibtreu, who played the boyfriend in trouble in "Run, Lola, Run," pulls off a convincing Clark Kent act as the bespectacled milquetoast who finds untold reserves of machismo as he confronts the myriad dangers of the road; with her braided hair and punk-chic clothes, the spectacular-looking Paul resembles Julianna Margulies's kooky sister. She's just sly and offbeat enough to make her spunky character sufferable.
These two performers are so compelling that they lead the audience to forgive Akin's most improbable coincidences, which will beggar the belief of even the most committed romantics. (And by the way, "Im Juli" is unabashedly, un-graphically romantic.) Reminiscent of Stanley Donen's scrumptious "Two for the Road" and the breezy summer romances of Eric Rohmer, "Im Juli" keeps it light. Not a bad thing considering the heavy weather to come.
Heavy like in "World Traveler," a new movie by Bart Freundlich in which Billy Crudup plays Cal, a thirtysomething husband and father who one day takes a powder from his New York life and hits the road, looking for . . . what exactly? We're not sure until the end of the film, by which time Cal has proved himself to be one of the most uninteresting and inconsequential characters on the pike.
"World Traveler" co-stars Julianne Moore, Freundlich's real-life mate, in a jolting (and brunet!) cameo appearance, but even her otherworldly performance as a troubled drifter can't resuscitate this anemic, pretentious exercise. As Cal makes his way from town to town (and woman's bed to woman's bed), his drinking and seducing and general bad behavior do nothing to advance the story but everything to prove that he's a boozer and a cruiser and a boor and worse, a bore.
By the time "World Traveler" reaches its wan, unrewarding payoff, the film seems to be little more than an excuse for the filmmaker to look at pretty scenery, show off his girlfriend and bewail the agonies of affluent middle age. If that's the way you want to start your summer vacation, here's some advice: Go to Yellowstone with a copy of "The Swimmer" and knock yourself out.