Writer/director Cameron Crowe has devoted his career to telling heartfelt human stories that look, feel, and sound like real life. Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous - you could have a festival of great films right there. After making a brief detour with the head-trippy Vanilla Sky, Crowe has returned to doing what he does best. Elizabethtown is a wonderful comedy/drama about those moments in life when you get lost and have to find your way back again.
Orlando Bloom stars as Drew Baylor, a hotshot designer for a major sneaker company (one that is not Nike yet bears a suspicious resemblance to it). Drew’s revolutionary new design – dubbed Spasmotica – should have taken the world by storm. Instead, it resulted in a major recall that cost his company nearly a billion dollars. Drew is forced by his boss to do a magazine interview accepting sole responsibility for the fiasco. He knows that his career is over.
Despondent and depressed, Drew considers suicide but is stopped upon receiving a phone call from his sister, Heather (Judy Greer). Their father has died suddenly from a heart attack while visiting his relatives in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Their mother (Susan Sarandon) is too upset to retrieve his body, so the task falls to Drew. It’s a hard job, especially since he feels guilty about being too consumed with his job recently to connect with his dad. On the flight down, Drew strikes up a conversation with flight attendant Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst), who provides him with driving directions and a friendly smile.
After meeting a side of the family he never really knew, Drew finds himself in the middle of a tempest. The extended family wants a burial in Elizabethtown; Drew, Heather, and their mother want cremation. It doesn’t help that his father’s relatives harbor a grudge against his mom. When the situation gets way too stressful, Drew turns to Claire for support. She’s the only one really available, since Heather is too unwilling to take charge and his mother is too busy filling up the hole in her life by compulsively taking up new activities. It turns out that Drew and Claire have a natural chemistry that quickly evolves into near-romance. For them to ever be together, he first needs to resolve some issues in his own life. To help, Claire creates a homemade road trip package, featuring a special map and several CDs of emotionally significant music. She orders Drew to take his father’s ashes and hit the road in search of self-discovery.
When I reviewed Kingdom of Heaven earlier this year, I wrote that Orlando Bloom needed to leave behind the historical/fantastical epics and prove that he could play a contemporary character. As Drew Baylor, he does just that. What’s interesting – and ultimately very effective – is that Bloom isn’t who you’d expect to play a role like this. I would have anticipated one of the usual suspects (John Cusack, Ben Affleck) to be cast in the part. Those guys would have done a fine job, but the not-so-obvious casting of Bloom works; the actor brings his own twist to Drew’s desperation, and since we haven’t seen him do this before, it feels fresh.
The casting of Kirsten Dunst is also note perfect. This is a tricky role. Played incorrectly, Claire might come off as a first-class kook. Dunst avoids that pitfall, playing Claire as an inordinately intuitive young woman. She looks at Drew and knows that he’s troubled; more impressively, she instinctively knows how to help him. I kept waiting for some dramatic speech in which Claire announces that she’s been in a similar situation. Happily, it never comes. This character just happens to be very in tune with life.
Elizabethtown garnered some bad buzz after Crowe showed a rough cut at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Having determined what worked and what didn’t with an audience, the director shortened the movie by over 15 minutes. I don’t know what he dropped, but it must have been all the right stuff. At its current 123 minute length, Elizabethtown feels just right. Aside from an extended memorial service scene that – with one character’s lengthy speech and another’s disastrous rendition of “Free Bird” – is just a little too precious, the story says a lot in just the right amount of time. When Drew goes on his road trip, it means something to us because of all we’ve seen him go through. At the same time, the trip doesn’t go on for too long; it’s just the right length to be meaningful – to him and to us.
At the beginning of the movie, Drew provides a voiceover narration in which he differentiates between a failure and a fiasco. Anyone can fail, he says, but a fiasco is something you don’t bounce back from so easily. Drew thinks his life has become a fiasco; he’s failed at a job and expanded that failure to encompass his entire life. Haven’t we all been in that boat at one time or another? Haven’t we all had moments when we’ve felt like complete screw-ups? And haven’t we all needed someone like Claire to snap us out of our self-pity and force us to look at the bigger picture of our lives? Elizabethtown is very knowing about the process of facing the bad times and picking ourselves up again. The movie has plenty of laughs, and just as many moments that make you smile with recognition. Cameron Crowe has once again captured the feeling of real life in a meaningful way.
( 1/2 out of four)
Elizabethtown is rated PG-13 for language and some sexual references. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.
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