‘Traveller,” which is available this week on video, began as an investigation. It evolved into a promising movie project but then quickly degenerated into a hybrid concoction of half-formed themes and unresolved plot points.
It is the kind of film that results when concept takes precedence over character development, and basic believability gives way to fantastic fiction.
Directed by first-time filmmaker Jack Green, “Traveller” is based on an original script by Jim McGlynn. The idea was suggested to McGlynn by a friend who claimed to have gotten drunk with some real-life Travellers in an Ohio bar.
Travellers, McGlynn was told, comprise a traditional society of Scottish outsiders (originally known as Tinkers) who prey on anyone not of their clan. Their stock in trade is fraud, a vocation they continued after first migrating to America in the mid-18th century.
McGlynn’s screenplay centers on two men and their various experiences working at what they call “the life.”
Pat O’Hara (Mark Wahlberg) is the son of an ex-Traveller, a man tossed out of the clan for daring to marry an outsider. At first rejected by clan leader Boss Jack (Luke Askew), Pat is taken under the wing of Bokky (Bill Paxton), a seasoned swindler and one of Boss Jack’s favorites.
Bokky and Pat work the backroads of North Carolina, selling driveway and roof “sealant” that is nothing more than crankshaft oil and junky trailers that look new but are bound to break down in no time at all.
All goes well until Bokky, shaken by the death of his loving grandmother, falls in with a bartender (Julianna Margulies of “E.R.”) whom he first cheats then romances. Pressed by his developing conscience, Bokky does something even more unforgivable: He and Pat team up with an outsider, Double D (James Gammon), for what looks to be an easy score.
Nothing ever comes easy, though, which Bokky to his misfortune soon finds out.
The problems with “Traveller” are multiple, starting with a script that fails to provide an adequate explanation for these people, their history and what holds them together in modern times. Those problems continue with - and in many ways are exemplified by - Bokky’s improbable, overnight conversion from a born thief to a man with outsider sensibilities.
Then there’s the violent climax, which is as jarring as it is ultimately incredible. Let’s just say that the film’s stretch for a workable ending would would better fit an Austin Powers adventure.
The acting is just fair with Walhberg and Paxton showing appeal but, at times, seeming to be in different movies altogether. Gammon plays his usually charming, gravel-voiced curmudgeon. And Margulies, the Emmy-Award-winner “E.R.” actress, continues her unremarkable big-screen career.
In the end, “Traveller” offers nothing much of interest. Except, of course, for the concept that inspired it.
** Rated R
The week’s other major releases:
That Old Feeling
Reunited at their daughter’s wedding, ex-marrieds Bette Midler and Dennis Farina find that their mutual loathing has an underpinning of lust. Funnier than it has any right to be, this Carl Reiner-directed comedy benefits from good performances by Midler (even if she doesn’t stretch any new ground), Farina, David Rasche and Gail O’Grady as the betrayed new spouses. But especially good are Paula Marshall as the daughter and Danny Nucci as a paparazzo with potential. Rated PG-13
In yet another version of the It’s-Gonna-Get-Us genre, an anthropologist (Eric Stoltz) hires a film crew (Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube) to document a secret Amazon tribe only to find a greater threat than he could ever have imagined: Snake-hunter Jon Voight (doing an accent that would have done Ricky Ricardo proud). Actually, the threat is a 40-foot-long anaconda that moves like a weasel in heat and can devour whole herds in a single bite. Never for a second believable, the computer-generated reptile is less scary than comical - especially when it confronts Voight, whose over-the-top performance is the film’s only real guilty pleasure. Rated PG-13
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