Writer-director Cameron Crowe can lay claim to a nearly speckless track record. From 1989's "Say Anything" to 1996's "Jerry Maguire" to 2000's "Almost Famous
" to 2001's "Vanilla Sky
," there are few better than him at indelibly blending three-dimensional narratives with powerful, complimentary underscoring soundtracks. Even more, there is an innate humanity and warmth to his films and characters that make the viewer want to embrace them. With that said, Crowe hits his very first stumbling block with "Elizabethtown." A strained slice of small-town Americana, for every magical individual moment the film digs up there are a handful that ring with a dispiriting, cloying falseness.
Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is having a crappy day. He is fired from his high-profile job at a top U.S. shoe company for aiding in its near-bankruptcy, he is more or less dropped like an old shoe himself by girlfriend Ellen (Jessica Biel), and just as he is about to halfheartedly attempt suicide, he receives a distressing call from his younger sister, Heather (Judy Greer), who breaks the news that their father has died back east in his small town of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. With devastated mother Hollie (Susan Sarandon) not ready to face that half of the extended family, the responsibility of going back to Elizabethtown and retrieving his father's body falls on Drew's shoulders.
On his way there, Drew has a meet-cute with lovably quirky flight attendant Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst), who offers precise road directions to Elizabethtown without his having to ask her. With Drew stuck in the middle of a practically foreign place for several days until the memorial service, he finds a newfound redemption in his soulful connection with Claire, a complete stranger who just might be his perfect match.
The similarities between "Elizabethtown" and 2004's brilliant "Garden State
" go without saying, but they deserve to be addressed. Both concern a lost young man in his twenties returning to his hometown after the sudden death of a parent, both find him reconnecting with estranged family members and acquaintances, both feature an adorable, free-spirited love interest who acts as his ultimate savior, and both excel with a sprawling song list that compliment the movie's images. What is different between these two movies, then, is in the treatment of the story. "Garden State
" was offbeat in many ways, but it was unforced, never less than truthful, and had a depth and beauty that was unparalleled by any other cinematic release of 2004. By comparison, "Elizabethtown" is meandering, frequently unconvincing in its comedic interludes, and lacks focus.
The film goes off in too many different directions and spends too much time with one-note supporting characters that have nothing to do with the central story. Furthermore, these characters, from all of Drew's relatives, to a rowdy group of wedding guests staying at the same hotel as Drew, to even his own mother and sister, never rise above caricatures. Even Claire, an admittedly memorable wise soul exhilaratingly played by Kirsten Dunst (2004's "Wimbledon
"), is sketchily developed at best. She is more of a movie-style vision of wishful thinking than a plausible human being, so generous and funny and downright perfect in every way that she comes close to resembling a desert mirage. Little is learned about Claireokay, practically nothingon hand for the sole purpose of being the embodiment of the ideal love interest.
When Claire presents Drew near the end with a huge, complexly designed scrapbook, which acts as a road map for his personal trip cross country and comes equipped with over forty hours' worth of accompanying mix CD's, one has to wonder when she had time to make the thing in four days, what with her hanging out at all hours with Drew (including an all-night phone conversation that was done much better in 1996's "The Truth About Cats and Dogs"), working as a flight attendant, and going on job interviews. Claire may not be a fully dimensional human being, but she's a great multi-tasker. Even if it isn't believable for a second, this fifteen-minute finalea whirlwind journey across America's heartland, complete with stops at instructed roadside attractions and time out for Drew to come to terms with the death of his fatheris pure magic. Had "Elizabethtown" been two hours of this, writer-director Cameron Crowe would have had a groundbreaking masterpiece on his hands, something of an "Easy Rider" for the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, by coming in right at the end, it cannot help to right all of the wrongdoings of the previous 105 minutes.
As mentioned, all of the time spent with Drew interacting with his Kentucky kin is thankless and leads to a dead end. The opening material involving the shoe company is awkwardly staged. And worst of all is the extended sequence at the memorial service, with Hollie getting up on stage and performing a stand-up act, followed by a dance dedicated to her husband, and ending with a freak fire breaking out during a band performance of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird." Cloyingly manipulative and embarrassingly unfunny, it is one of this year's most misguided motion picture segments. Director Cameron Crowe tries too hard time and time again, pushing humor where it doesn't fit and then going for drama at the most inopportune of times.
No doubt about it, when a film centers so heavily on an individual character, as "Elizabethtown" does with Drew Baylor, it is required that the actor playing him or her is up to the challenge. The vacant-eyed Orlando Bloom (2005's "Kingdom of Heaven
"), in his very first modern role, is most definitely not. Save for about three or four glimpses of honesty, Bloom's performance is a misfire that keeps Drew from connecting on a personal level to the audience. When called upon to act in close-up with contemplative facial expressions, Bloom looks like a deer caught in the headlights.
On the extreme other end of the spectrum, Kirsten Dunst has rarely, if ever, been so effervescentno small praise for one of the finest of today's roster of young actresses. Her Claire is an enigma because of the short thrift the screenplay hands her, but Dunst gives the role her all and comes up with a savvy young woman of endless charm and beauty. It would be nice if such an idyllic person actually existed. The rest of the actors, all great in the pastSusan Sarandon (2002's "Moonlight Mile
"), Judy Greer (2004's "13 Going on 30
"), and Jessica Biel (2005's "Stealth
") among themare misused in glorified cameos.
At its core, "Elizabethtown" wants to be the story of a son dealing with the loss of his father while discovering the beauty within the world, but this is squandered too by never exploring who this late man really was. The only information ever given about him in relationship to his child is that they had planned to take a road trip together one day, and the only time he is glimpsed alive onscreen is in a wordless flashback as he and a young Drew twirled around the barren Kentucky home they were planning to move away from. It's a maudlin, artificial "movie moment," worthless in its superficiality. "Elizabethtown" features a great soundtrack of undiscovered gems by such musicians as Elton John and Tom Petty, but this time Cameron Crowe has used them at the service of an inferior screenplay in need of rewrites. Lurking deep within "Elizabethtown" are a number of enchanting ideas and even a few self-contained luminous moments. Sadly, what surrounds them is half-baked and unsatisfying.