“As someone once said, ‘There’s a difference between a failure and a fiasco.'” It’s ironic that 2005’s Elizabethtown kicks off with that line, because the film isn’t considered one of Cameron Crowe’s best, not by a long shot. For all intents and purposes, it’s Crowe’s swan song.
Cameron Crowe was, of course, the successor to John Hughes, as he made films geared to young people, only with more of a grunge edge. Gen-X-ers are very well-acquainted with 1989’s Say Anything and 1992’s Singles. Posters for those films were everywhere. John Cusack holding the boom box over his head is iconic to this day. Crowe’s films were cool character studies that everyone could relate to, invariably punctuated by awesome music.
By the time Elizabethtown premiered in 2005, though, things had changed. It had all the classic Crowe trademarks, but it just didn’t succeed.
Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) works for an Oregon shoe company called Mercury, which is like Nike, only more future-y. He’s considered to be quite the up-and-coming star at the company because of his pet project, the Spasmodica. Frankly, the shoe is ugly. It looks like a platform sneaker and a spat had a baby in an unhappy union. Still, the shoe is predicted to revolutionize athletic footwear, and Mercury sinks two billion dollars into production and marketing.
Then, for some strange reason, Spasmodica is recalled and Drew is in disgrace. The movie never says why, but according to Roger Ebert, the Spasmodica whistled with every step, a point that was cut from the final movie. Anyway, Mercury makes a big show of firing Drew, and then, just to pour salt in the wound, has him talk to a reporter about his big screw-up. Drew’s last sight as he slinks out of the building is his girlfriend, Ellen (Jessica Biel) putting the moves on Mercury’s newest hire.
Determined to end it all, Drew goes home and cleans out his apartment. He puts his stuff in the street and while passersby pick through the heap like vultures, he duct tapes a butcher knife to his exercise bike. The idea is that pedaling will make the knife stab him repeatedly. Embarassingly enough, Drew can’t even make this scheme work, as the knife keeps falling out of the duct tape.
Drew applies more tape and is about to start pedaling when he gets a call from his sister, Heather (Judy Greer). Their dad died while visiting family in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Neither Heather or mom, Hollie (Susan Sarandon) can fly out to make funeral arrangements, so it’s up to Drew. They send him off on a red-eye with Dad’s blue suit and his well-worn saying, “If it wasn’t this, it’d be something else.”
Go ahead and cringe. It’s the most natural thing to do right now. Don’t get comfortable, either, because there are more winces ahead.
On the plane, Drew meets flight attendant, Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who’s endlessly chirpy and eager to help. She draws Drew a map to Elizabethtown, complete with appropriate phone numbers, including her cell phone, and pretends to take Drew’s picture as he walks through the terminal in Louisville.
Drew feels so awkward around his family he starts off by offering condolences to other people instead of receiving them. His family is quite a motley bunch and very welcoming, particularly his cousin, frustrated musician Jesse (Paul Schneider), who talks like he lives to be quoted: “This loss will be met by a hurricane of love.”
Groan. He talks like that the whole movie.
After a long night, Drew drives back to his hotel in Louisville, where a destination wedding is happening. Chuck and Cindy have taken over, with gift baskets in every room and a party in the hallway. Drew shuts out the madness by turning on the TV, but every program has something to do with weapons, and the only one that draws him in is a Ron Popeil knife informercial.
He finally picks up the phone and calls Ellen, then his mom’s house, where Heather answers, and Claire. Ellen breaks up with him, and Heather can’t really talk because Hollie is a whirlwind of activity. She’s learning to cook, tap dance, and laugh.
Claire, on the other hand, is ready and willing to talk all night, which is exactly what she and Drew do. A lot of reviews have referred to her as the Manic Pixie Girl, and it’s an apt description. She’s a fun character, but she can be wearing. The film tries really hard to wring suspense and tension out of her relationship with Drew, only they make it cute, and it falls pretty flat.
As far as the rest of the film goes, it’s way too long for what it is, and there’s not much in terms of plot. It’s a lot of atmosphere and showing of random family photos, and the funeral seems to be a long time coming. It doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be reflective, or small-town-imparts-wisdom-to-worn-out-city-dweller, or a paen of American life.
I guess the main thrust of it is that Drew learns how to get outside of himself and rediscover what his dad loved so much about Elizabethtown and his family. He helps Jesse, who’s a single dad, get control of his son, Sampson, a little hellian who runs wild. He also helps his mom and sister reconnect with a family they were cut off from by geography and crossed signals.
And of course, there’s the funeral, which includes a performance of “Free Bird” and a flaming tissue paper eagle. Errr…okay.
In the end, Claire sends Drew off on a road trip. She’s only known him for basically three days, has been around about forty percent of the time, and yet she’s managed to compile a map the size of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Everything he’s going to see is timed down to the minute, decorated with ephermera, cute little sayings, pictures of herself, and since it’s a Cameron Crowe film, suitably fitting mix CDs.
Elizabethtown isn’t all bad. There are elements of the film I like, such as the scene when the characters are hanging out in the kitchen in the evening drinking beer and listening to the night sounds, and Orlando Bloom has a dreamy expression on his face. It gives me all kinds of nostalgia, because it reminds me of visiting my relatives in Kansas and Arkansas. Every night, we’d stand around the kitchen and drink lemonade with just the screen door keeping out the bugs. Sometimes we’d go out in the yard and catch fireflies. It’s one of the best ways in the world to wind down.
The road trip scenes are great, too, because they intersperse terrific music with what seems to be a legitimately happy and awed Orlando Bloom. Bloom was in the middle of things he’d never seen before and he likes the view. He seems to know he’s experiencing the rich, snarly, whimsical, rollicking tapestry that is Americana and American history. His solemn face when he stands in front of the Lorraine Motel doesn’t look like acting.
I also like the part when he’s talking to the late Russell George, owner of Earnestine and Hazel’s in Memphis. My dad lived in Memphis for a year as a teenager, and I have to wonder if he and Mr. George ever met and didn’t know it.
I think what would have served the story better would have been to intersperse flashbacks of what happened to Drew at his father’s funeral throughout the road trip scenes. It would have been natural, seeing as road trips are a great time to reflect, and would have shortened the movie. It definitely would have set up a bigger payoff. Instead, the road trip is tacked on at the end, kinda like an afterthought at the end of this drawn-out, long-in-the-tooth movie.
Cameron Crowe’s feature film career has pretty much plummeted since Elizabethtown. He’s done one feature, We Bought A Zoo, a comedy that was only made somewhat bearable by Matt Damon, and seemed more suitable to the Disney Channel than to the guy who brought the world Singles. He’s also done a TV series, Roadies, which, despite a competent cast that included Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino, ran for one season on Showtime. Mostly, Crowe seems to be attempting to recapture his roots as a music journalist by directing a 2011 documentary about Pearl Jam and another about David Crosby, but neither one seem to have made an impact.
So was Elizabethtown a failure or a fiasco? It’s both. It’s a haphazard-though-goodhearted and natural movie that represents the downhill slide of a director who peaked after only six films. Maybe like Drew, Crowe has to rediscover what made him a unique and competent director in the first place. It remains to be seen whether or not that will happen.
Another Shamedown is on the way next week, and we’re gonna stay on the Gen-X theme. Thanks for reading, all…
Elizabethtown is available on DVD from Amazon.