Writer/director Cameron Crowe is going for a down-home vibe in Elizabethtown, his latest film. He succeeds in making an earnest if flawed and ramshackle tale that makes you laugh and plucks at the heartstrings a bit as well.
Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) lives in Portland, Ore., and works for a giant shoe company (a thinly veiled version of Nike). His big shoe design has just turned out to be a major fiasco, costing the company nearly a billion dollars. The same day he loses his job, he also finds out his father has died suddenly while visiting relatives in Kentucky.
Drew’s mother (Susan Sarandon) and sister recruit him to go down South to make funeral arrangements. On the plane, Drew meets a perky flight attendant, Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who makes a big impression on him. Then he gets to Elizabethtown, to find a town full of forgotten relatives and a place where his father was truly loved.
The critical reception for Elizabethtown was downright negative for Crowe, who’s scored with movies like Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire. And I’ll admit, Elizabethtown is severely clunky in spots compared to Crowe’s other works. He’s trying to do too much — it’s a love story, an elegy for a dead father, a meditation on failure, and boasts a dozen or so other subplots.
While few modern directors can do so, Crowe balances a sense of warmth, comedy, and intelligence, and has called the theme of his movies “the victory of the battered idealist in a cynical world.” The good parts outweigh the bad of Elizabethtown.
Bloom, best known for running around as an elf or medieval warrior, acquits himself decently in his first major modern-day role. He tends to underplay a bit, but he’s not awful. As for Dunst, well, her ditsy charm might be an acquired taste, but I found her spunky character an enjoyable spin on the “quirky girl” stereotype. The camera loves her, and she provides a needed burst of optimism to cure Drew’s depression.
Elizabethtown is filled with adoring touches — the buzz of insects in the trees that you hear everywhere in the South, the constant serving of food, the ne’er-do-well cousin who dreams of making it big with his band, a boisterous memorial service that turns into a free-for-all.
But Crowe’s whimsy gets a bit out of hand, particularly in an awkward sequence featuring Sarandon toward the film’s climax. And while I love Crowe’s use of popular songs in film, he overdoes it here — not every scene needs its own blaring soundtrack.
As a DVD, Elizabethtown is a pretty weak edition, though, with barely any special features and worst, no commentary from Crowe, who gives some of the best commentaries in the biz. Although Elizabethtown flopped in theaters, I still hold out hope for the eventual special edition DVD, much like what happened with Almost Famous.
Elizabethtown is unabashedly sentimental, and more than a little optimistic. It’s not the best of Crowe’s films, but it doesn’t embarrass them, either.