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Elizabethtown   D+

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Cameron Crowe
Writer: Cameron Crowe
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, Bruce McGill, Judy Greer, Jessica Biel, Paul Schneider.

Review by Rob Vaux

No, Cameron! Not another musical interlude! Please, I'll be good! I'm sorry I said all those nasty things about Vanilla Sky! For the love of all things holy, put the Tom Petty down, Cameron! Please!

Elizabethtown is rife with musical interludes, the kind director Cameron Crowe eats for breakfast. He can apply popular tunes to his work in uncanny ways that strengthen film and song alike. But in Elizabethtown, it all goes wrong. Dreadfully wrong. The mid-range rock classics of which he is so fond break out of their context and run amuck, scattering the narrative like a flock of frightened sheep. The result is a slow, meandering mess of a film, held together by a torturous parade of increasingly pointless soundtrack segues. How monotonous does it get? There are 35 different songs in this movie. With a running time of just over two hours, that's a new song every three and a half minutes. On cue. With no discernable purpose other than cheap jukebox gratification. No mas, Cameron. No mas.

Nor is the music the only part of Crowe's normally irresistible repertoire that explodes on the tarmac. The romance, the frothy dialogue, the journey of self-discovery that makes his films such a joy... none of that can be found in Elizabethtown. Or rather, they can be found, but only in twisted mutant form, as if space aliens had inhabited Crowe's brain and delivered a shoddy approximation of what his work should be. Nowhere is this more apparent than with his signature blonde muse -- the sort of role that launched the career of many a Hudson and Zellweger -- embodied here in Kirsten Dunst's calculatingly whimsical flight attendant Claire. Dunst is among the most vibrant and engaging personalities in the movies today, and yet her first appearance -- an in-flight Meet Cute with Orlando Bloom's devastated shoe designer -- plays like a cheese grater across raw nerves. She's shrill, she's intrusive, and most importantly, she fails to generate any chemistry with her co-star, negating our interest in their future romantic tête-à-tête from the get-go. Her personality improves as time goes on, but by then, one of the key points of the exercise has already been lost.

So too does Elizabethtown's ode to finding oneself go disastrously awry. It starts out promisingly, with a funny/heartbreaking sequence in which Bloom's Drew Baylor learns that his magnum opus has cost the company somewhere in the vicinity of one billion dollars. Much of the credit for the scene goes to Alec Baldwin -- impeccable as Baylor's eerily placid boss -- but Crowe's dialogue fires on all cylinders and for a moment, it looks like the film is on firm footing. Then the rest of the plot kicks in. Drew's father dies while visiting family in Kentucky, and the young man must journey to the title burg in order to claim the remains. There, he meets his appreciably wacky down-home relatives in an ill-conceived satire of red state/blue state culture shock. Not only did this summer's Junebug beat it to the punch in that regard, but the combative tone necessary to drive such a conceit never appears. It's all cute one-liners and would-be endearing character quirks, wandering around with no sense of focus or direction. The concept eventually implodes in a supremely ill-conceived memorial sequence, in which Drew's mother (Susan Sarandon) placates the country mouse side of the family with a bizarre combination of tap dance and stand-up comedy. Crowe presents it as daffy and heartfelt, but it plays like a horror show of queasy self-indulgence.

Claire is supposed to swoop down and rescue Drew from all this, teaching him that he still has much to live for despite his spectacular failure and recent loss. But here too, Crowe has little idea how to proceed. He cheats when describing their attraction to each other, particularly during an early all-night phone conversation that relies on a montage of snippets rather than any real conversation or character development. With their attraction already straining plausibility, the script needs to work much harder than it does to convince us that they're falling for each other. Instead, it strings together a series of semi-interesting romantic contrivances -- meeting for a sunrise, shopping for funeral urns, crashing the pre-wedding festivities of an obnoxiously self-absorbed local couple -- that shamble along with shaggy-dog aimlessness before arriving at their foregone conclusion. Bloom looks out of place without a broadsword in his hand (though he might have done better had his character been more firmly defined), while Dunst deserves far more than the creaky material she's working with here.

Crowe himself seems painfully aware of Elizabethtown's flaws, which may explain why he tries to cover them up with those endless musical montages. It's no surprise when the film finally crash lands in VH1 World, abandoning all pretense of narrative coherence in favor of a never-ending car commercial of lead-guitar hokum. No story can survive with so little thought put into its construction, and Crowe is too good a filmmaker to be forgiven for such carelessness. Elizabethtown exists only as an embarrassing outtake reel, slapping together botched concepts that should have been left on the cutting-room floor.

Review published 10.13.2005.

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