Elizabethtown


(10/23/2005)

Elizabethtown, written and directed by Cameron Crowe, is a truly frustrating movie. It's not just "hit or miss": it's hit/miss, hit/miss, hit/miss, and so on. Just when it seems that Crowe is getting some comic momentum, the film stops in its tracks, repeats itself, or starts turning phony and awkward. Crowe has a couple of big box-office draws, Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom, at the center of this romantic comedy, but he manages to dilute whatever chemistry they might have achieved. On the other hand, the darkly funny premise of the film gets lost in terminal cuteness and movie clichs, popping up less and less frequently after a wonderfully original opening to tease us. Finally, the last fifteen minutes or so is given over to a pointless road trip which feels self-indulgent, rather than conclusive.

The story begins in failure, or rather fiasco, "a disaster or mythic proportions." In this case, the bust is the baby of shoe designer Drew Baylor (Bloom), whose plummet from wunderkind to schlemiel is astonishing in its speed. He has designed a shoe, the Spasmodica, which turns out to be a global dud. Drew, a self-styled specialist in "last looks""”the kind that people give you when they're leaving you"”prepares to take his own life. He even converts an exercise bike into a suicide machine.

As he mounts it, his phone rings, and his sister (Judy Greer) tells him that Dad has died and Drew, "the responsible one," has to fly to Elizabethtown, KY, get the body cremated, and bring the cremains back to Oregon. Meanwhile, Mom (Susan Sarandon) is going manic, planning to heal by taking up organic cooking and tap dancing. On the way to his father's hometown, where everybody loved him, Drew meets Clair (Dunst), a cabin attendant who chats him up and figures out that he's putting up a front. She gives him a map, showing him how to get where he needs to go.

In Elizabethtown, though, he's overwhelmed by family, most of whom he has never met, and by their insistence that his father, Mitch, be buried in the family plot in the local cemetery. At this point, the hilarity starts to get forced, Drew's progress (and the film's) bogs down, and the story devolves into a series of bits, some funny, some not. Interlaced with these, the growing attraction between Drew and Claire seems spasmodic and inexplicable rather than inevitable, as it ought to feel in romantic comedy.

There are some running jokes around a wedding going on in Drew's hotel, Drew's cousin and his bratty son, a man who may have swindled Mitch out of some money, and Mom's going goofy. The musical background is varied (Crowe knows his rock!) and appealing, the scenery fetching, the supporting cast good. But it all fails to jell. We constantly feel that we're supposed to laugh, the kiss of death for comedy. The incoherence of the plot dulls the numerous good lines' edge, wasting Sarandon's considerable talents, among others.

Elizabethtown is rated "PG-13" for "language and some sexual references," but there's nothing shocking or explicit here. Crowe fans who liked Say Anything or Jerry McGuire will likely just be disappointed. Considering the talent assembled before and behind the camera, the movie has promise: it just never fulfills it.

 

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