Writer-director Cameron Crowe is a talented guy. He started writing at age 15 for Rolling Stone magazine, and shortly thereafter penned his first screenplay, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). His directing debut would come with his breakout hit, Say Anything (1989), and he has continued this trend of quality with Jerry Maguire (1996) and Almost Famous (2000). It’s been four years since his last film, Vanilla Sky, a sci-fi effort (actually a remake of the Spanish film, Open Your Eyes) that confused his fans and garnered a lukewarm reception from critics. Crowe returns to familiar ensemble-drama turf with Elizabethtown, which unfortunately doesn’t return him to his former caliber of storytelling.
Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is coming off of one the biggest fiascoes of his life: his new revolutionary athletic shoe is a monumental flop, costing his former employer almost one billion dollars in losses. On the brink of a very creative suicide, he gets more bad news: his father has just passed away and his family wants him go take care of the funeral arrangements. On his way to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, Drew meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a flight attendant with a heart of gold who seems genuinely (or obsessively) interested in him. Will Drew be able to juggle all this so he can return home to kill himself?
Elizabethtown is what one might call a “blender movie”, where you take many characters, plots and ideas, throw them all together and hit “puree”. There is way too much going on here, and none of it feels focused. What should gel instead feels like separate movies strung together. Crowe is being too ambitious, and his lack of cohesiveness is painfully obvious. As a result, we just don’t care about anybody or anything.
Crowe is known for his good casting, but he stumbles in giving Bloom the lead. He is so under whelming we don’t feel much for him and can’t understand why Dunst does. She comes across much better, despite the fake-feeling zen dialogue Crowe gives her to speak. There are many other actors here who do a good job (most notably Alec Baldwin as Drew’s ex-boss, and Susan Sarandon as Drew’s mom), but they seem short-changed in this story, which gives them so little to do.
The movie also tries for too many poignant moments that it just doesn’t earn. There is a scene toward the end where Sarandon gives a long speech at her husband’s funeral. She is barely in this movie, then pops up at the end trying to make us feel something. If anyone deserves this moment it’s Drew--not his mom. It is he who we’ve been investing in (or are supposed to be investing in) emotionally, and he’s robbed of this payoff. Furthermore, Sarandon finishes her speech with a tap dance (!), which the funeral crowd inexplicably cheers. We in the audience are left with question marks over our heads--more than once.
At 125 minutes, this movie is way too long, and feels padded (plot going nowhere? Add music and montage!). This is especially noticeable in the final fifteen minutes, which not only feels contrived, but totally unnecessary. The same story could have been told in an hour-and-a-half, but this one goes on and on, mercilessly draining every bit of interest from the viewer.
There are some good things about Elizabethtown. I liked the small character of Drew’s brother Jessie (Paul Schnieder) and his rendition of ‘Freebird’ that turns fiery. I liked the scene when Dunst emerges from a hotel elevator to a crowded lobby who knows where she just spend the night. I like Crowe’s ideas, just not his implementation.
Late in the film Bloom reads a magazine article about his failed shoe entitled, “Blueprint of a Mess”. I bet it was also the working title for this movie.