Cameron Crowe is the luckiest guy in the world. At fifteen or thereabouts, he was touring and writing about the biggest bands on the rock scene. See Almost Famous - The Director's Cut (Two-Disc Special Edition). And getting paid for it! But, "what I really want to do is direct." So he gets to direct, and he does so well. See Jerry Maguire, Say Anything, Vanilla Sky. On top of everything else, he's married to Nancy Wilson from Heart. He gives hope to geeks everywhere.
So it was with great interest that I watched Elizabethtown, Crowe's latest. He's got a strong cast, including Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, and Susan Sarandon, and he's got a penchant for telling effective character-based stories. So did he pull it off again? Let's see:
The Good: Drew (Bloom) is having the bad day of bad days. The shoe he has developed has laid an elephant-sized egg, to the tune of about a billion dollars. His craven boss (Alec Baldwin, in a throwaway part) wants Bloom to take the heat for the fiasco. To make his day perfect, he learns that his father has died in rural Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and he's been drafted to schlep cross-country to the hinterlands to collect the body and deal with the (to his mother and sister) annoying locals. As he sits on the plane, basically suicidal, he encounters the most proactive filght attendant I ever saw. And what happens to Drew as he moves physically and spiritually through Elizabethtown and beyond is the real story here.
Bloom, who is English, affects a flawless -- if regionally neutral -- American accent, and is engaging as the beset-upon Drew. Kirsten Dunst, as usual, lights up the screen. The movie basically is Drew's voyage of discovery and redemption, as he comes to terms with the death of his father, the collective love of dad's native Elizabethtown friends and family, his own professional failures, and and his own disconnect with all of the above. Crowe is an engaging writer, and has good chops in telling a story as a director. I figured out fairly quickly that this movie was informed by Crowe's loss of his own father, many years ago. While I applaud Crowe for giving it the old college try, the movie just doesn't hold together in the end.
The Bad: As alluded to earlier, Kirsten is the most in-your-face flight attendant in history. Why don't I get stewardesses like that [you really want me to answer that? -- ed.]? As my wife the retailer said while watching the movie, it's just not realistic that the shoe that Drew developed would have ever gone to market before exhaustive testing to ensure it didn't lay the egg described in the story. Certainly, the designer is not going to be the only one in the chain to take the heat for the failure.
I was annoyed at what I perceived to be the stereotyping of small southern communities portrayed by Californian cum Washingtonian Crowe. Although he did appear to soft peddle it, the Elizabethtown residents were the usual suspects: the frosted-hair aunts, the redneck local businessmen, the redneck single father cousin. Maybe I'm just hypersensitive here, but I don't see that kind of thing here in Knoxville, at least.
Ultimately, I didn't think the action while in the town scanned. Why didn't Sarandon, as Drew's mother and new widow, go to Elizabethtown to deal with arrangements concerning her own dead husband? If she had such a good relationship with her husband, why then was she taking cooking and tap dancing classes instead of burying her beloved? If it was because she couldn't stand the townspeople, or her family in-laws, then why did she show up at the end of the picture for the memorial service they held? She was basically wasted in this role.
Come to think of it, we never learned why dad was in his native Elizabethtown in the first place. If he and his family were as estranged with his local family as implied, then why was he there? Why was dad so revered by local family and friends? Let's face it: out of sight means out of mind. If he had been gone from his home town for decades, as implied, then it is likely that the town was not going to be as collectively prostrate with grief as portrayed.
I also couldn't suspend disbelief long enough to believe in the crucial and central relationship between Bloom and Dunst. Don't get me wrong; I rooted for them, but I just didn't believe it. And Bloom's questing drive cross-country to cap off the film is supposed to be quixotically romantic, I suppose. It just comes off as silly to me.
The Bottom Line: Two Flicks. I really wanted to like this movie better, but it just didn't stack up well compared to Crowe's very solid previous work. To use a sports metaphor, sometimes, you've got the right play called, the right players on the field, and the touchdown pass just falls short. That's "Elizabethtown" to me.