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David Styburski
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Movie Review: "Elizabethtown"

Cameron Crowe’s movies usually depict surprisingly thoughtful characters who hover around conventionally shallow social circles. His debut film, 1986’s “Say Anything,” ignored the tired concept of teenage puppy love and suggested that people in high school possess the ability to be deeply romantic. “Singles” looked ahead at a twenty-something crowd and ultimately showed audiences a few young adults who might not have always beaten back egocentric behavior in their quests for careers and companionship but who at least made an attempt to do so. With “Jerry Maguire,” Crowe managed to turn a sports agent into someone other than an arrogant creep, quite a feat considering that the title character was played by Tom Cruise. And, of course, “Almost Famous” masterfully displayed fairness and reverence regarding the world of rock and roll, owning up to the hedonism within the music industry while still arguing that even ego-driven guitar gods and their groupies often possess a heavy passion for the music itself that outweighs any desire related to sex or drugs.

Crowe fails in an odd way with “Elizabethtown,” like a long-distance shooter in basketball who can’t make an easy layup. The new film inverts the formula of those movies mentioned above by setting up a potentially heartwarming scenario and then cluttering it with trivial annoyances lacking much, if any, emotional depth.

Orlando Bloom stars as Drew Baylor, a shoe designer whose latest product line has nearly bankrupted a billion-dollar company. Drew loads his computers and clothes into a dumpster and is ready to kill himself until his sister calls to inform him of their father’s death. Dad died during a solo trip to his Kentucky hometown, and it is now Drew’s job to get the body away from the paternal side of the family, into a nice suit and onto an Oregon-bound plane so that the deceased’s wife and kids can handle final arrangements.

The premise ought to lend itself to a story about fathers and sons, redemption or at least some general personal growth. “Elizabethtown” eventually steps toward comfortable territory, but the bulk of the movie ignores the human elements of the plot so much that when Crowe finally shoots for sentiment, his efforts seem more like obligatory, half-hearted lip service than sincere, mature meditations on suicide or loss. Too much of the film showcases oddball characters in distracting situations with only loose connections to the plot’s presented conflicts. One extended family member who screams like a banshee and another who brags about being an opening act at a state fair for Lynyrd Skynyrd “with two original members” are funny at first glance, but their presence in “Elizabethtown” does nothing to help the audience understand Drew or his father. The same goes for a pair of newlyweds who hold a ridiculous beer bash in celebration of their union. A perky flight attendant named Claire (Kirsten Dunst) is inserted into the picture in order for Drew to have a reason to reconsider his hopelessness. She’s a sweet lady but an obnoxious one, too, who never shuts up. Drew’s suicidal aspirations explain why he never becomes overwhelmed with stress when dealing with these goofballs. Many audiences, though, will lack such distorted patience.

Of the supporting characters, only Drew’s mother (Susan Sarandon) emerges as an engaging personality dealing with the psychological effects of a loved one’s passing. Unfortunately, Crowe keeps her almost entirely off-screen until the movie’s final third. She’s funny and touching, and it’s a shame that her scenes have a dulled impact as a result of all the unfocused comedic and romantic fluff that precedes them.

The best moments in “Elizabethtown” are musical ones. As Drew comes face-to-face with his dad’s body in a funeral home, Elton John’s “My Father’s Gun” plays, bringing more attention to the parent-child relationship (or  lack thereof) than any piece of dialogue in the whole film. In an early scene, a mentally defeated Drew rides alone on a plane to Kentucky to the tune of Tom Petty’s “It’ll All Workout,” a number that is half reassurance and half fool’s hope. Music, of course, was Crowe’s first love, so it’s no surprise that the finest scenes in his movies feature great songs. With one or two exceptions, however, the moving pieces of music in “Elizabethtown” have to overcompensate for the impersonal tone of the screenplay. That, in a Cameron Crowe movie anyway, is a shock.

Posted: October 30, 2005 

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