The first thing you encounter in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown is a narration by Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) that discusses the difference between a failure and a fiasco — the idea being that anyone can fail, but that it takes a special type of person to create a fiasco. If that’s so, then Crowe himself is a very special type of person, because his new film is a fiasco of untold proportions.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some good things in it. But rarely has a film managed to be this maddeningly meandering, forced, unbelievable and, ultimately, phony and uninvolving. Its 123 minutes feel many times that length as it lurches in fits and starts toward its shamefully pat conclusion.
Probably the bulk of the blame goes to Crowe the screenwriter more than Crowe the director, because the script is generally more at fault than its execution. No matter how you look at it, the story line is a Hollywoodized rip-off of Zach Braff’s vastly superior Garden State. The plots are almost identical — disaffected young man goes home for a parent’s funeral and finds himself and true love in an improbably unattached, quirky young woman. The changes of a dead father (Tim Devitt, Screech of the Decapitated) for a dead mother, a blonde girlfriend for a brunette, and the fact that Drew is going not to his hometown, but to that of his father are hardly enough to make a difference in the premise.
The real difference is that Braff knew what he wanted to say and where he was going with it. Crowe seems fully as directionless as his purported hero, and has crammed the film with a good half-dozen extraneous subplots and non-plots — and at least twice that many extraneous characters. Worse, Crowe’s own story line is unbelievable and unfocused.
It starts with the concept that Drew has designed, created and produced the worst — or at least most crashingly undesired — sneaker in the history of rubber, and that his employer (Alec Baldwin) fires him over this. Fair enough, but are we really supposed to believe that any shoe, no matter how overhyped, could lose a company a billion dollars? Are we also supposed to believe that no one else — including Baldwin’s character — is in any way culpable? Please.
Of course, this causes Drew’s girlfriend (Jessica Biehl, Stealth) to dump him. It’s an OK device that bizarrely leads Crowe into having an attack of believing he’s a young Woody Allen as he concocts a scene where Drew creates a ridiculous suicide machine that he doesn’t get to use because of the phone call announcing his father’s death. The suicide machine to one side, her dumping him is again workable, yet here it seems contrived.
At least it seems so until we find Drew as the only passenger on a night flight to Louisville, Ken. (the closest airport to Elizabethtown), where he meets painfully quirky/cute flight attendant Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst), who jabbers away so endlessly that she appears to have forgotten to take her medication. She’s immediately attracted, but he’s too in love with his own dejection to notice, so they go their separate ways … for the moment.
In the meantime, Drew arrives in Elizabethtown (after a pointless sequence of him getting lost) and is subjected to his quirky Southern relatives. This plays exactly like you’d think, though it does afford Asheville’s own Paul Schneider (All the Real Girls) a great supporting role as Drew’s cousin, Jessie, one of the film’s best-drawn characters.
Standard-issue complications ensue, more extraneous characters wander in, and Drew and Claire launch a tentative relationship, which is, of course, threatened by his failure and his on-hold suicide. And this, I think, is what really sinks the film. “I have a dark date with destiny,” Drew tells her with unabashed melodrama. The central problem here actually begins with the suicide machine.
This kind of teen-angst drama-queenery belongs in Crowe’s Almost Famous with its teenage protagonist. Here, with the nearly 30-year-old Drew, it’s not just preposterous, it’s self-dramatizing, self-indulgent solipsism, and it only makes an already none-too-likable character even more so. Claire is supposed to get him over this, but the viewer is more apt to feel like bitch-slapping him out of it.
To make matters worse, we’re treated to a totally disconnected eulogy sequence from Drew’s mom, a pretty funny (but grafted on) bit with cousin Jessie’s band performing a credible version of “Free Bird,” and a ridiculous road-trip to self-discovery that tries to pull it all together. The latter is probably the movie’s biggest miscalculation. It not only makes no sense (when exactly did Claire have the time to put together 42 hours worth of mix-CDs and lay out this memorabilia-festooned map for Drew’s journey?), it occurs way past the point where the film has outlived its tenuous welcome. And it mostly plays like a bad recent-American history travelogue.
Yet, this part of the film also contains one of Crowe’s most pleasing visuals, in which someone with flowers passing behind Claire enhances her character (too bad something like it was done better by Garry Marshall in Frankie and Johnny). There’s also a nearly brilliant moment in which Drew finally comes to grips with his father’s death, one of the few places where Crowe successfully utilizes his oft-noted gift for effectively using a pop-rock soundtrack. Set to Elton John’s “My Father’s Gun,” the movie suddenly seems real and dynamic and might have partially redeemed itself had it stopped there and just forgotten that it was a rom-com that needed a typical rom-com ending.
And yet I couldn’t help but wonder if I was responding to the film or the song, an overlooked gem from John’s richest period (1969-75). I’m not sure that the movie really gives anything back to the song and doesn’t just trade on it instead, though its inclusion is the only moment in Elizabethtown that gets near the “Tiny Dancer” sequence in Almost Famous and speaks to the potential connecting power of rock music.
If nothing else, it made me listen to John’s Tumbleweed Connection album for the first time in years. Yet it’s still an isolated success in a train-wreck of a movie. Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual references.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke