I was intrigued as I read a recent email newsletter from Hollywood Lit Sales which featured a critique of Elizabethtown by Tom McCurrie. McCurrie is a former development executive, as well as a story analyst, screenwriter, and screenwriting teacher. In the critique, he focused on why he believed Elizabethtown failed to connect with audiences, and in his opinion the film's principal flaw was that it lacked a cohesive sense of conflict.
"Bloom tries to off himself in the beginning, which provides a nice inner conflict with life-and-death stakes, the highest stakes there are. But once he heads to Kentucky, Bloom never tries to commit suicide again, nor does he even talk about it, except for one inference in a speech to Dunst late in the film. This particular conflict has disappeared, along with the tension, and interest, it could have created.
So let's look at the external conflict, the one between Bloom and his Kentucky relatives over whether the father should be cremated or not. Family feuds are often like driving by a grisly car accident — truly nasty but hard to ignore. Unfortunately, before this feud can boil over into something interesting to watch, Bloom reads the Riot Act to his relatives in one short scene, telling them his father is going to be cremated, end of story. The relatives shrug their shoulders in acceptance, everybody is one big happy family again, and that is the end of this particular conflict as well.
Since at its heart ELIZABETHTOWN is a romance, the film's third conflict involves Bloom and Dunst's relationship. Now whether it's a romantic drama like ROMEO AND JULIET or a romantic comedy like WEDDING CRASHERS, the tension, and interest, in a romance comes from whether the lovers will be able to overcome the obstacles in the way of them living happily ever after. The problem with ELIZABETHTOWN is that Bloom and Dunst have no obstacles between them whatsoever."
Now, I've often told people that in my opinion, the essence of story can be boiled down into a simple phrase: character in conflict. You need a character; you need a conflict. Without either, you don't have a story. You can have lots of characters or you can have only one; the conflict can be internal or external. But you need them both. "Boy meets girl" is a situation; "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl" gives us the building blocks of a story. Or, as I believe Jared Wilson had as one of his "quotes of the moment" over at his Mysterium Tremendium blog, "The cat sat on the mat isn't a story. The cat sat on the dog's mat is a story."