Bernard Rose’s COVID drama ‘Traveling Light’

Stephen Dorff and Danny Huston in Traveling Light.

Stephen Dorff and Danny Huston in Travel Light.
Photo: Xenon Picutres

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over yet — who the hell knows if it ever will be — but its early months have come to feel like a distant, drunken, collective nightmare, when everything we thought we knew about human behavior seemed to get turned on its head. At first glance, the Angelenos in Bernard Rose’s dreamy and marvelous Travel Light, which returns us to the summer of 2020, act like space aliens. They speak through each other even as they judge one another. They alternate between anxiety and frivolity, as if nothing is all that important but somehow everything is significant. They’re all incredibly weird yet embarrassingly familiar.

Rose’s film (which is opening theatrically in New York after a run in Los Angeles and will hopefully be more widely available soon) takes place over the course of one day in late May, and its background is more than just COVID. In fact, the first thing we hear is a news report about the death of George Floyd. Updates on police violence and unrest on the streets has put everybody on edge, particularly Caddy (Tony Todd, who also played the title role in Rose’s horror classic, Candyman), a newly minted Uber driver. When he’s not ferrying passengers, Caddy roams the city in his car looking for his son, who fled home years ago and may well be among the city’s many homeless.

Meanwhile, Harry (Danny Huston), a kind of remote-work celebrity New Age guru who does popular meditation sessions on Zoom, prepares to president over a real-world party where a group of Hollywood types will gather for some mindfulness, some spiritual oneness with the cosmos, and some unchecked hedonism. In somewhat unlikely fashion, Caddy winds up driving nearly all the delightful party to their destination, including Todd, a frustrated celebrity tennis star and coach played by confused and lobster-tanned Stephen Dorff.

Also gradually making his way to the party is Arthur (Matthew Jacobs), a nebbishy busybody who, when he’s not trying to catfish his way through online dates, wanders the streets looking for unmasked strangers to shoot on his phone, presumably so he can publicly shame them. When Arthur arrives at the party and sees all these unmasked faces hanging out together in an enclosed space, he doesn’t know whether to snitch on them or join them; they are, after all, beautiful and famous and cool, all the things he wishes he could be.

Everybody’s in everybody else’s business, and yet each of these characters is resoundingly, paralyzingly self-absorbed and alone. Travel Light is in no way a didactic film: It doesn’t try to tell us who among these damaged souls, if any, is doing the right thing, or even what the right thing might be. All these interactions seem poisoned in their own way. In the summer of COVID and George Floyd and sociopolitical collapse, it feels like the whole human experiment has failed.

Echoing the existential chaos of the people is the twilight city itself, marked by closed stores, desolate streets, and the vestiges of protest and violence. Driving his passengers through this netherworld, Caddy regards everything and everyone with what we can only call bemused contempt; Tony Todd can convey with just one head turn or eye-roll more than most actors can with reams of dialogue. But this man, too, is looking for connection. He’s at first confrontational about a passenger’s attempts to take off her mask, but gradually, over the course of the film, the dynamic of social distancing in his car changes, until by the end he’s got someone riding in the passenger seat. And his attempts to find his son eventually lead him toward an act of generosity for someone entirely unknown.

Intimate and lovely, the film has a loosely improvised quality. Individual scenes sometimes feel like fragments from a broader, more coherent whole. Rose has never hesitated to cut out anything that reeks of too much plot. He’d rather let us connect the dots between people and incidents whichever way we want, and he likes to watch his characters squirm like bugs pinned to a board — but with love. (You could almost think of his pictures as darker, more artfully shot riffs on Curb Your Enthusiasm.) The movie gathers force as it proceeds and delivers one final shock toward the end. It’s not a twist, exactly, but rather a development that makes you reconsider what you’ve just seen — suggesting that those who sometimes seem to care the least about the world are, secretly, the ones most overwhelmed by it.

Travel Light continues Rose’s ongoing efforts to create haunting miniatures about life in Los Angeles with a classical twist. We can trace the start of this project to 2000’s ivansxtca modern adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich, also starring Huston (in a staggering performance) as a hotshot Hollywood agent who, on the eve of his greatest professional triumph, discovers that he’s dying of cancer. At the time, Rose was reeling from the difficulties of making his handsomely mounted 1997 Anna Karenina adaptation and had understandably sourced on the modern studio system. For ivansxtche utilized high-definition video cameras (well before they became standard industry practice) to liberate himself from big budgets, meddling executives, and cumbersome crews — and in so doing gave us one of the most incisive films ever made about Hollywood, not to mention one of the most uncannily gorgeous.

Huston and Rose’s partnership represents one of the great unsung actor-director collaborations of the past two decades. They followed up ivansxtc with several more Tolstoy adaptations. In 2008’s impossibly grim The Kreutzer Sonata, the actor plays a wealthy man consumed with paranoia, guilt, and rage after he pushes his musician wife into a possibly imagined affair with a handsome violinist. In 2012, they made Boxing Dayan adaptation of Tolstoy’s Master and Manin which Huston plays a craven real-estate speculator from LA looking to buy up properties in Colorado who enlists the aid of a driver (played by Matthew Jacobs) and winds up stuck in the freezing snow with him.

Of these later films, my favorite is probably 2 Jacks (also from 2012), based on Tolstoy’s Two Hussars, in which Huston offers a charismatic spin on his own father, the great John Huston, as he plays a legendary man’s-man director who mooches, gambles, brawls, and seduces his way through a Hollywood suspended in time, a city filled with neo -flappers, old-school hucksters, and annoyingly modern hipsters. Years after he leaves, his flavor-of-the-month son (played by Danny’s nephew, Jack Huston) returns, with substantially more fanfare, and attempts his share of mooching and seducing. The son leaves town a ruined man, but perhaps with a better understanding of his father.

Many of these films (including several other Rose-Huston collaborations, among them a melancholy 2015 Frankenstein adaptation and 2019’s Samurai Marathon, made in Japan) barely got US releases and were often dismissed by critics. Taken together, however, they constitute a moving series of moral fables … or rather immoral fables. Tolstoy was preoccupied with the problem of living in the world, of carving out a just and good life, but he sometimes conveyed this through characters who breached all bounds of propriety and decency.

Rose has run with that idea, and he’s found, in Huston, a perfect vessel for these explorations. The actor’s presence is a fascinating series of layers. On one level, you can detect the old-world charm of his father, John Huston. (He has the voice, too.) On another, there’s a scragginess that could belong to a recovering hippie, even though Danny is way too young to have ever been a hippie, recovering or otherwise. This familiar, multi-faceted quality of his resembles that of another, older, and more famous Hollywood scion, Michael Douglas. But unlike Douglas, Huston, with those arched eyebrows and Joker smile, could never be an Everyman. His energy is demonic. Or maybe it’s godlike insolence, which in today’s world is probably the same thing. Either way, you can’t take your eyes off him.

In Travel Light, that corrupt-divine quality of Huston’s comes fully to the foreground. He might be a pseudo-mystic charlatan, a guru for a whole bunch of vapid celebrities, but his hold over these people, and the movie, is real. In a superficial world, wouldn’t a superficial god just be… a god? Travel Light is not a Tolstoy adaptation. It doesn’t have his narrative armature. But it does have the spiritually questioning quality of his work, which has clearly rubbed off on Rose. That makes its final scenes, which suggest that the gods have given up on us, that much more striking and profound.

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