Cameron Crowe's latest isn't as bad as you've heard, but it's still a desperate mess of a movie.

By Stephanie Zacharek
Published October 14, 2005 2:00PM (EDT)

Cameron Crowe's haunted village of a movie, "Elizabethtown," has enough detail for 14 movies and not enough ballast for one. At two hours plus, it's both too long and too short: Some parts feel hastily compressed, like a book rendered in print too tiny to read comfortably. Elsewhere, Crowe stretches small moments into a luxurious groove, giving us a tantalizing -- no, make that heartbreaking -- sense of what this picture should have been. Watching "Elizabethtown" was one of the most painful moviegoing experiences I've had in years, not because the picture is that much of a chore to sit through but because I couldn't squelch the feeling that the elements of this movie -- these characters, this story, this assemblage of soundtrack music -- all quite solid on their own, had shaken out into some horribly wrong combination. "Elizabethtown" never quite feels like itself, whatever that self might be; it's as if another, subtly but significantly different movie were desperately trying to break through its skin.

That said, "Elizabethtown" is nowhere close to the travesty you may have been led to expect. Thanks to that pig pile known as "advance word" -- everyone wants to be the first to call an upcoming movie a disaster -- there's been plenty of talk about the problems Crowe has faced with "Elizabethtown" and what he's had to do to try to fix them: Most notably, after a clammy reception at the Toronto Film Festival, Crowe trimmed the movie by 18 minutes, and the cuts may account at least partially for the picture's disjointedness.

But the biggest problems with "Elizabethtown" are marbled through it; I suspect they're nothing that could be fixed in the editing room. Crowe is a writer and director who's guided by his heart and his brains in equal measure, an effortless equation that has worked beautifully in pictures like the ardent teenage romantic comedy "Say Anything," and in the fairy-tale rock 'n' roll road movie "Almost Famous." Because Crowe seems motivated solely by what he cares about, as opposed to what studios think audiences should care about, it's tempting to defend him on purely emotional grounds. (Even his most overtly commercial picture, "Jerry Maguire," is brushed with some idiosyncratic Crowe touches.) But "Vanilla Sky" proved that Crowe, like any artist, is capable of believing wholeheartedly that he's giving us depth and meaning when what he's really serving up is just pretentious poot. Maybe that's why "Elizabethtown" is so frustrating: It at least has the aura of a return to form, but it's so confused and unfocused that it comes off as desperate instead of generous.

In "Elizabethtown," Orlando Bloom plays Drew, a young shoe designer who's just launched a stinking failure of a product, losing the company he works for some $750 million. He decides life isn't worth living and just as he's about to say goodbye, cruel world (he's rigged up a comically inefficient suicide machine from an old exercise bike, a kitchen knife and some duct tape), his phone rings. It's his younger sister, Heather (Judy Greer), with some horrible news: Their father, Mitch, has died suddenly of a heart attack while visiting his relatives in Kentucky. Their mother, Hollie (Susan Sarandon), just can't cope with this sudden disaster. Can Drew, she wants to know, fly to Kentucky (the family lives in Oregon), dress the body in a blue suit, have it cremated, and fly it back home?

Drew agrees to the task, but he feels benumbed by his father's death. We find out that the two were never particularly close. On the plane to Louisville -- the city closest to the burg Mitch came from, Elizabethtown -- Drew meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a talkative flight attendant with a gift for sizing people up, accompanied by the constant need to dispense wise-sounding advice. She both befriends and annoys Drew, talking his ear off while he's trying to sleep; but she instructs him in the proper pronunciation of "Louisville" (LOU-a-vull), and also draws him a map to help him navigate the confusing local roads. Claire puts her phone number on the map, too. That's a good thing because when Drew gets to Elizabethtown, he's charmed but a bit bewildered by his dad's enthusiastic, well-meaning relatives, and he desperately needs a friend in this (to him) foreign land.

"Elizabethtown" tries to be many things: a romance, a story about a family coming to terms with death, a fable about some of the weirdly joyful aspects of grieving. Those are all things Crowe should excel at handling. But "Elizabethtown" is a sprawl, perhaps the victim of a kind of ADD of the heart. The story is drawn partially from something that happened to Crowe: His own father died suddenly of a heart attack while visiting his Kentucky relatives, just as Crowe's directing debut, "Say Anything," was getting its first ecstatic reviews.

But something gets lost in translation here. The idea that families are shell-shocked by a sudden death is perfectly believable. And when someone close to us dies, we sometimes need more than the rest of our own lifetime to figure out what that person meant to us. But in the world of this story, Mitch is something of a mystery to everyone except his Kentucky relatives. His children and wife act as if he's someone they barely knew -- through much of the movie I wondered if Hollie and Mitch were estranged, given the fact she'd treated the retrieval of his body as if it were a grocery errand. In fact, by the time Drew shows up in Elizabethtown, Mitch's extended family and buddies have already embalmed the body, perused the casket catalog, and marked off his burial plot, as if this were completely normal behavior for friends and relations to engage in without consulting the widow or the children. Eventually, Drew mentions the cremation thing -- there's even a zanily romantic urn-shopping montage, in which Drew and Claire search for the perfect bone pot -- and the townsfolk reluctantly acquiesce.

But even if you steadfastly decide not to let expectations of realism or logic get in the way -- because there are times when you just have to enter the emotional zone of a movie and not get hung up on details -- there are too many angles of "Elizabethtown" that just don't resonate, emotionally or otherwise. Drew and Claire make their first significant connection when Drew impulsively phones her from his hotel room: Crowe cuts from Claire in her apartment (cleaning the litter box, painting her toenails) to Drew in his suite (he's somehow become part of a wedding entourage that's staying at the hotel, so he's wrapped himself in a white terry bathrobe nabbed from one of the nuptial goodie bags), capturing the rambling texture of the conversation, the way it goes from here to there even as it seemingly goes nowhere. As always, Crowe uses pop music so organically, and with so much unvarnished feeling, that it serves as a kind of spackle for the movie's myriad flaws in craftsmanship: Drew has a private moment with his dad's body set to Elton John's "My Father's Gun," and it's one of the few moments that give us any sense of what the father-son relationship must have been like.

But so much of "Elizabethtown" just leaves you asking, Why? Why does Hollie decide, right after her husband's death, that she positively must learn to cook, fix cars, and tap-dance? (All of that's explained later in a eulogy that's supposed to be wackily charming. But even this supposedly heartfelt scene just feels tacked on as a way of justifying the grief-loony whirlwind of cooking, car fixing and tap-dancing -- an overly coy, fancy way of asserting that everyone grieves in his or her own way.) Why does Heather seem as if she's barely a part of the family -- just somebody who's handy to have around for making phone calls? Why does Drew, upon his arrival in Kentucky, act as if he's never seen a front porch before, or known anyone who knew how to bake a pie? (Even if Drew hailed from the Bronx and not Oregon, the aw-shucks wonder of it all would still seem disingenuous.) Why does Claire have to dispense knobby truisms like "Men see things in a box, and women see them in a round room"?

All of the actors in "Elizabethtown" seem to be dancing as fast as they can, trying to make it all work: Bloom, good-looking as he is, is a dim shape of a romantic presence, but at least there's something soulful about his eyes. And Dunst, saddled with the thankless role of the bright, sensitive woman who has to explain everything to the perpetually clueless guy, throws off a few subtle flashes of sharpness -- more than may have been written into the role in the first place.

Once in a while the picture springs to life, as in the coda, a road-trip sequence that includes footage of a spot in Memphis that, to me, feels truly sacred, the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. But there's so much in "Elizabethtown" that seems to have been included only for effect -- like the giant papier-mbchi dove that catches fire during a soaring cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird." It sure looks good. But it's an empty image. Crowe knows how to use pop music to give a scene shape and meaning, and he certainly has a big heart. But sometimes good intentions just make a mess. "Elizabethtown," like that decorative dove, is a construct that doesn't throw off the emotion that it should. It's a flight of whimsy that goes down in flames.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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