‘Traveling Light’ Review: Stuck in Close Quarters, Staving Off COVID and Boredom

Shot during the pandemic and set on May 30, 2020 — just a few days after the death of George Floyd during an arrest by the Minneapolis Police Department — “Traveling Light” is an experimental attempt at social commentary that fails to provide any insight, emotion or even entertainment of the most basic kind. Nearly a year after its weird-fit premiere at genre-focused Beyond Fest in Los Angeles, this scrappy COVID-era quickie from eclectic director Bernard Rose (who made the original “Candyman”) opens today in New York and Seattle, with other cities to follow.

It seems Rose was aiming for a loose riff on “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” focusing on a gathering in the Hollywood Hills of the followers of a self-proclaimed guru/prophet (Danny Huston), where everyone drinks a concoction spiked with an unnamed hallucinogenic and eventually line-dances while chanting “Hare Hare,” even though there isn’t a single Hare Krishna in sight.

But whatever Rose’s intent was, what he gets is closer to an improv class at a community college where students are just knocking out a required elective. Instead of a descent into close-quarters hell, of the kind Gaspar Noé achieved with “Climax,” Rose lets his actors prattle unscripted nonsense (“My melody is a celestial melody!”) while an Uber driver (Tony Todd, hidden behind a mask and sunglasses for most of the film) roams Los Angeles, transporting passengers and keeping an eye out for his son, who went missing and is presumed to be living in a homeless camp.

Aside from Todd, the driver who serves as the connector between the other characters by giving each of them a ride, the film’s biggest role is Harry, played by Huston (a frequent Rose collaborator) as an insufferable blowhard who makes proclamations such as “It’s like the Earth needed to breathe!” about the pandemic, is prone to suddenly shouting “Let’s party! Let’s scream!” and likes banging a gong just because it’s there.

Improvisation is not Huston’s strong suit, nor does it seem to be a strength of any of the supporting cast, which includes Stephen Dorff and Olivia D’Abo as disciples of Harry, and Matthew Jacobs as a man documenting mask-mandate violations on his cell phone, intending to turn them over to the police.

Even the backdrop of the looming George Floyd riots has no bearing on the story, other than a quick glimpse of news coverage on the TV and some shots of smoldering ruins the morning after. Whatever commentary the film is trying to make about present-day America is lost in the tedium.

Rose’s work as a director has ranged from the impressive (“Paperhouse,” “Candyman,” “Immortal Beloved”) to near-misses (“Frankenstein,” “Mr. Nice,” “Ivans xtc.”) to outright disasters (“Anna Karenina,” “Boxing Day,” “The Devil’s Violinist”). It’s unfair to lump “Traveling Light” into that last category: The movie was made as a low-budget creative exercise and should be viewed that way. Even the most well-intentioned scientists, however, sometimes know when it’s time to pull the plug on a botched experiment.

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