Two months ago — before the Toronto Film Festival and before the negative buzz began permeating the elitist, sacrosanct bullshit world of “film criticism” — I arranged travel plans so that I could be in Arkansas to see Elizabethtown. After all, I thought, what better angle could I provide for a film about family, the untimely death of a father, and returning to one’s Southern origins than to return to my birthplace, the place where my own Dad met his early demise, the state that chewed me up and spit me out into the Northeast nearly a decade back? The plan was to take in the screening, head for the airport, and write the review from 32,000 feet in the air, still regrouping from the emotional wounds a Cameron Crowe film always leaves.
Unfortunately, even the best-laid plans have a tendency to waver and buckle, and here I sit, in an airport hotel, listening to the Elizabethtown soundtrack, having just missed the return flight back to the Northeast, though I can’t say that the emotional wounds that Crowe left are any less deep. For sure, those mainstream critics who have already had their say aren’t entirely wrong — the film is meandering, overlong, unworkable, and perhaps too heavy on the schmaltz — but, inexplicably, it’s no less affecting for it. It comes nowhere near matching Cameron Crowe’s previous efforts in the things that matter to the more cerebral-minded, soulless critic but, Goddamnit, the film is still just as infused with Crowe’s trademark (bittersweet) whimsical poignancy, and hell if he isn’t still just as capable of capturing moments of heavy-heartedness in unexpectedly relatable ways and then finding the perfect piece of music to make it linger for you.
The movie follows shoe designer Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), another in a succession of autobiographical Crowe characters who has just been fired from his job after spending the last eight years of his life designing the Späsmotica, an ambitious new shoe that cost his company a nearly $1 billion in losses. As Drew is contemplating suicide, his sister (Judy Greer) calls to inform him that his father has died and that — as the elder sibling — he needs to return to Kentucky to pick up the corpse.
On the way to Elizabethtown, Drew meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), an irritatingly optimistic flight attendant and stock Cameron Crowe love interest. Once Drew arrives in Elizabethtown … oh, screw it. Plot regurgitation does no justice to Elizabethtown and only serves to highlight the film’s endless string of flaws, one of which is Crowe’s decision to clumsily weave together an inordinate number of plotlines. Suffice it to say that the general plot structure follows the template that Crowe perfected in Singles, Say Anything, and Jerry Maguire: Leading man, on the verge of breakdown, meets soul mate; stirring music plays, preferably while driving; the courtship is then blended into nonromantic subplot (here, reconnecting with his dead father); stirring music plays, preferably while driving; a romantic obstacle is thrown into the mix; stirring music plays, preferably Lynrd Skyrnd; You had me at Hello; and finally, the credits roll while stirring music plays.
As a film reviewer, especially one whose positive reviews are scant, I am often fearful of ruining what little credibility I have built up in all seven of Pajiba’s readers by extolling the merits of a film that has none to speak of; and with Elizabethtown, I am particularly mindful of that apprehension. It would be easy to pick Elizabethtown apart, dice it up, venomously slam it, and then mix in some spite-fueled profanity for good measure; the film has serious flaws, not least of which is the decision to cast the obnoxiously grating Kirsten Dunst and the inexpressive, vanilla-flavored Orlando Bloom. The two leads do the most extensive disservice to Crowe’s dialogue, which has always been dangerous in the hands of less-talented actors (imagine Jessica Alba saying “You had me at Hello,” to Josh Hartnett; Jack Black as Lester Bangs; or James Van Der Beek exclaiming “I gave her my heart, and she gave me a pen”), and with the material in Elizabethtown, Kirsten Dunst couldn’t sell a line to Kate Moss. Still, if you can look past Dunst and Bloom, and instead imagine John Cusack or Patrick Fugit delivering the dialogue to Kate Hudson or Jamie Gertz, it’s not hard to actually experience the potential of Elizabethtown.
Still, there are enough things wrong in Elizabethtown to justify almost any despicable review critics will toss as you, but I just can’t abide by it; there is too much good going on here. Indeed, in its better moments, Elizabethtown ever-so-briefly manages to catapult you into Cameron Crowe’s magically melancholy world, or at least into his narrative soundtrack, both of which are capable of breaking your fucking heart with the single stroke of a chord.
And that, dear readers, is why we go to the movies.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()