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TV Reviews : 'Traveling Man' Loses Its Way, Gets Stuck in a Ditch

June 24, 1989|DON SHIRLEY

"Traveling Man" (Home Box Office, Sunday at 9 p.m.) aspires to be the "All About Eve" of the industrial foam selling business. Ben Cluett (John Lithgow) is the veteran selling champ; Billy Fox (Jonathan Silverman) is the young hotshot who learns the ropes from Ben and then tries to surpass him.

David Taylor's script sharply sets up the relationship between the two in their initial scenes together. But when the movie wanders away from the hard work of selling and from its focus on the two of them, it becomes diffuse and conventional.

A scene in which Ben looks up an old, disillusioned client injects a gratuitous note of melodrama. And two sequences are there for their scenic value more than for their relationship to the story.

In one, Ben becomes sexually entangled with a college student (Chynna Phillips) who videotapes their lovemaking. Although Ben acts shocked, the scene isn't really much more than an old-fashioned traveling-salesman joke.

Later, Ben picks up Joanna (Margaret Colin) in a bar, and they quickly fall in love. At first, their affair exists so the film can include colorful shots of them strolling through Mardi Gras in New Orleans; then it continues so the movie can have a happy ending. The ending's synthetic good vibes also stem from an unlikely transformation on the part of young Billy.

Irvin Kershner directed, apparently without much inspiration, judging from the way the film slowly fizzles. Lithgow is in fine form as Ben. Silverman makes the right moves, but his Southern accent sounds a bit forced. John Glover has a couple of enjoyably over-the-top scenes as the company sales manager, exhorting Ben and Billy to make that sale.

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