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Wrong turns lead to Elizabethtown

by Glen Baity

Glacially paced and never quite as adorable as it wants to be, Elizabethtown is the newest film from Cameron Crowe, the rock star in film director’s clothing behind Almost Famous and Say Anything. The film is his first since 2001’s Vanilla Sky, which was loved by me and roughly a half dozen other people worldwide. Crowe, in a mere six-film career as a director, has (at least in my mind) pulled off quite a feat by making his name synonymous with legitimacy and sincerity. From the moment Lloyd Dobler held up his ghetto blaster to serenade Ione Skye back in 1989, Crowe became the de facto spokesman for guys who mean what they say, even if they can’t always find the words. When he’s on, it’s nothing short of sublime (Almost Famous, Singles), but even when he’s not, you can tell the guy honestly means it.

This almost makes it more painful to watch his missteps. If you love his films like I do, it’s no fun to watch him crash, and I take no pleasure in panning his latest. Where so many of his peers churn out cold, impersonal films, Crowe brings warmth like a birthday present from an old friend, and it’s hard watch one of his films and say ‘thanks, but it’s not really my style.’ In the case of Elizabethtown, sadly, I have to do just that.

The film is about Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), a tennis shoe designer responsible for the biggest failed product launch in his company’s history. His boss Phil (Alec Baldwin, in top form as usual) fires him after Drew loses the company an estimated $1 billion with a winged sneaker that never quite catches on. Shamed to the brink of suicide, Drew receives a phone call informing him that his father, the most popular man in Elizabethtown, Ky. has died. On the way to oversee the cremation, Drew meets bubbly stewardess Claire (Kirsten Dunst), from whom he learns about life, love and starting anew.

Elizabethtown, while it has moments of brilliance, collapses under the weight of its problems. For starters: I’ve had my fill of films where the big city boy returns to his small town roots to rediscover life’s meaning. Garden State, a film to which Elizabethtown bears more than a passing resemblance, recently did this to great effect. But it doesn’t work here for several reasons, starting with the fact that Bloom consistently keeps Drew at arm’s length. His interpretation of a generally smart script doesn’t capture the progression of his character ‘— whether he’s suicidal, lovesick, lonely or depressed, Drew is a blank slate right up to the point when he’s supposed to connect with his father’s death. Bloom can be a powerful supporting actor, and in Elizabethtown he displays flashes of leading-man potential, but he’s not there yet.

All of Crowe’s movies are essentially stories of personal growth. At some point, the main character comes full circle to measure himself against his progress, and that’s a good thing. But in Elizabethtown, something isn’t right ‘— yes, a loved one’s death affects everyone differently, but beyond Bloom, I found the characters mostly hollow. The film doesn’t spend any time establishing a fairly complicated family situation, so nobody’s reaction to the father’s death makes very much sense.

Crowe instead wastes the bulk of the film on a love story that feels forced and mechanical. Bloom and Dunst are both good enough actors, but they don’t really spark in this film. A lot of this can probably be tied back to Bloom’s performance, coupled with the fact that most of the obstacles the relationship faces are either imaginary or confusing.

None of this is helped by the fact that the film hardly seems to have been edited at all. This is especially evident in the strange and frustrating end sequence, which includes a live performance of ‘“Freebird’” (we’re in the South, after all); a stand-up comedy routine; a scavenger hunt and (hey, what the hell?) a little tap-dancing. Elizabethtown runs its course a full 20 minutes before the end montage, a pointless road trip scored to Crowe’s admittedly impressive record collection. Practically the entire last half-hour feels apropos of nothing, and it limps past the finish line like a chain smoker in a 10k run.

Film critics use phrases like ‘phoning it in’ all the time, which is usually unfair: it’s obvious Crowe, who writes and directs nearly all of his films, puts commendable thought and emotion into each project. Even Elizabethtown is heavy with feeling, though that alone doesn’t make it a good film. It possesses all the hallmarks of a Cameron Crowe picture: awesome soundtrack, personal journeys, love, loss and hope. But the whole this time is far less than the sum of its parts, resulting in a rare miss from one of my favorite directors.

If Glen Baity loves Cameron Crowe so much, why doesn’t he just marry him? Send your inquiries to egothelivingplanet@excite.com

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