Cameron Crowe, filmmaker of “Say Anything,” “Jerry Maguire” and “Almost Famous,” is one of the best writer-directors working in Hollywood. That’s why “Elizabethtown” is both doubly disappointing and still understandable.
Disappointing because it just never finds its rhythm, and understandable because Crowe isn’t a cookie-cutter creator and misfires are the price his genius must pay.
“Elizabethtown” is a semi-autobiographical tale about shoe designer Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) who, in the midst of a professional crisis, must head to Elizabethtown, Ky., where his father has died and relatives are planning—nay, strategizing—about the memorial.
En route to Kentucky, Drew encounters flight attendant Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst), who is quirky, interesting, giving and—beneath it all—needy (in a good way, though). They maintain contact via the omnipresent cell phone after landing, and Claire eventually primes Drew’s pump for connecting with his roots.
Drew hangs in the bluegrass, navigating the cousins, wondering about his father, reflecting on his professional life and connecting with Claire.
At 123 minutes, however, the film is ultimately all over the place. Instead of a story with drive, we get an assembly of sequences—some of which are pretty funny. For example, while in Kentucky, Drew stays at a hotel that also hosts the wedding party for “Cindy and Chuck.” The scene of Chuck learning about Drew’s death in the family is hilarious. It’s also emblematic of Crowe’s intent to marry laughter and tears.
Crowe has Bloom doing a voice-over that should help hold the movie together, but it doesn’t. The film is simply too sprawling. Of course, part of the movie’s point is that Drew’s trip back to Kentucky is also a journey of self-discovery, but “Elizabethtown” still needs a better map.
That map would have given better direction for Susan Sarandon’s storyline. Sarandon, always a fine actress, here plays the role of the grieving widow. The role is odd (not in a good way, though). There’s a difference between a multi-faceted character and a character so multi-faceted that no shape exists. Sarandon’s Hollie is the latter, and the responsibility lies with Crowe.
Bloom and Dunst don’t exactly deliver much chemistry, but that could have been overlooked had the rest of the film found its footing. Sadly, it does not. On a positive note, however, Bloom does advance beyond his swashbuckling roles (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Kingdom of Heaven”), and Dunst’s performance echoes Geena Davis’ Oscar-winning turn as Muriel Pritchett in “The Accidental Tourist.”
As any fan of Crowe knows, the filmmaker plays with themes and underscores them with unforgettable moments. Though “Elizabethtown” doesn’t cohere like “Jerry Maguire,” for example, Crowe does lace the film with his usual thoughtfulness.
One of the best—and most thought-provoking—is the figurative and literal way in which the death of Drew’s father gives life to Drew himself. Crowe could have—and should have—hugged the rails of that sweet narrative turn.
He didn’t, however, opting instead for detours, parking lots, dead ends and boulevards.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and some sexual references. Reviewer’s Note: Ditto the MPAA.
Director: Cameron Crowe
Writer: Cameron Crowe
Cast: Drew Baylor: Orlando Bloom; Claire Colburn: Kirsten Dunst; Jessie Baylor: Paul Schneider; Hollie Baylor: Susan Sarandon; Phil DeVoss: Alec Baldwin; Bill Banyon: Bruce McGill; Heather Baylor: Judy Greer; Ellen Kishmore: Jessica Biel.
The movie’s official Web site is here.