Director : Cameron Crowe
Screenplay : Cameron Crowe
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Despite all his best intentions and last-minute editing, Cameron Crowe’s free-flow romanticism may have finally gotten the better of him in Elizabethtown. A semi-autobiographical story about a young man returning to a family he doesn’t know, it is sweet and sometimes charming, but it has no real center to hold it together. Is it about family? Forgiveness? True love? The dangers of buying into your own hype? In a way, Crowe wants it to be about all these things and more, which is why his first cut, which played to less-than-enthusiastic response at the Toronto Film Festival, was so long. Even after judiciously cutting about 18 minutes, the movie still feels unfocused, albeit not without its charms and moments of human revelation.
In his first movie role that doesn’t involve wearing armor, swinging a sword, or shooting a bow and arrow, Orlando Bloom plays Drew Baylor, a young man who has just crashed in a way few people have the opportunity to crash. His design for a new running shoe has had a disastrous reception, costing the Nike-like company for which he works $972 million. As Phil (Alec Baldwin), the owner of the company tells him, he might as well just round it off to a $1 billion. Not surprisingly, Drew is fired, and the shadow of a major exposé in a business magazine about his megaflop looms just over the horizon.
That night, he receives a call from his sister (Judy Greer) that his father has died while visiting his brother in his hometown of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Because his mother (Susan Sarandon) is shell-shocked about the whole incident (she buries her grief in learning organic cooking and tap dancing), it is decided that Drew should go to Elizabethtown to see his father’s body back home for burial in Oregon.
On the red-eye flight out, he meets a perky stewardess named Claire (Kirsten Dunst) who, in Crowe’s idealized terms, represents Drew’s salvation if only he would open his eyes. Romance as salvation has been the fuel of virtually all of Crowe’s film, from the heartfelt teen drama Say Anything ... (1989), to the portrait of desperate twentysomethings in Singles (1992), to the mega-hit Jerry Maguire (1996). One imagines that he was drawn to remaking Alejandro Amenábar’s Abre los ojos into Vanilla Sky (2001) largely because of the dreamlike final image of Penelope Cruz as the protagonist’s paramour standing atop a building. It summarizes perfectly Crowe’s vision of true love as absolute redemption.
Unfortunately, in Elizabethtown the dewy romance tends to get in the way of the rest of the story. Or, to put it another way, rather than being the center of Crowe’s fable, it feels like a sidebar that he pays too much attention to. If anything, the core of Elizabethtown is Drew’s family, which is a full-bodied, bustling group of people who love to cook, talk, and get together and decide what’s best for everyone else. It is one of the few portraits of small-town Southern folk that doesn’t feel overtly condescending or willfully simplistic. Yes, they differ greatly from Drew, especially since he barely knows them, but that difference isn’t played as superior/inferior or high culture/low culture, but rather just as difference.
As the movie progresses, Drew slowly comes to terms with the family he doesn’t know, the woman he is inexplicably falling for (their first real connection is a lengthy telephone conversation that is dotted with the kind of sweet, recognizable details that usually elevate Crowe’s films about others of their ilk), and his own corporate failure. Elizabethtown climaxes with a memorial dinner for Drew’s father that goes both right and wrong in every way you can imagine, but the movie keeps going because Crowe has to find some kind of resolution for both Drew the person and Drew the beaten romantic (there is nothing in the film to really suggest that Drew is a romantic, but being one of Crowe’s alter egos, we simply have to assume that he is).
This leads to a long, meandering, classic-rock-fueled roadtrip that is one of those only-in-the-movies contrivances that should work to remind us of all that is good in the world, but feels labored and forced (the incredibly detailed, music-driven guidebook Claire puts together for him would have taken a month to assemble). This is Drew’s moment to regenerate, to draw himself together into a human being who can feel and love, which is ultimately what Crowe’s stories are about. Unfortunately, there have been too many distraction and sideroads along the way, to the point that his redemption feels like a Screenwriting 101 point tacked on at the last minute.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Paramount Pictures