Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 23, 2006)
Maybe Cameron Crowe can’t have it both ways. 2000’s Almost Famous received consistently positive notes from critics but failed to find much of an audience. 2001’s Vanilla Sky did much better at the box office, but it earned little critical affection.
At least one side or the other liked each of those films. In the case of 2005’s Elizabeth, critics and moviegoers agreed: it was a dud. The flick earned mostly weak reviews and took in a mere $26 million at the box office.
I really like and respect Crowe, so I’d like to say that he deserved better. Unfortunately, I fully agree with the majority on this one. Elizabethtown stinks.
Creative whiz kid Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) works for a major shoe company and bombs with his unusual design for the “Spasmotica”. Shajkdsak causes the company to lose $972 million and leads Drew to the brink of suicide. Literally about to off himself, his sister Heather (Judy Greer) calls to tell him their father Mitch (Tim Devitt) just died while on a visit back to his family home of Elizabethtown, Kentucky.
Their mom Hollie (Susan Sarandon) is too upset to make the trip, so they entrust Drew with the duty to retrieve Mitch’s body and bring it back to Oregon for cremation. On the long flight, Drew meets chatty flight attendant Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst). The extroverted Claire forces Drew to spend time with her on the nearly-empty flight and leaves him with a card that includes her number.
While Drew finds himself surrounded by family – albeit folks he barely knows – he ends up lonely back in his hotel room. He reaches out to speak to someone and takes a stab in the direction of Claire. They end up having a mind-blowing all-night conversation. This leads fitfully to a romance and many other adventures as Drew tries to deal with his failure and come to terms with his father’s death.
If you like musical montages, then Elizabethtown is the flick for you! Crowe started as a music writer, and his love for rock remains well-established. He fills his movies with music and usually uses it to good effect.
However, he also usually finds a way to make the music embellish the story and not just act as filling. In the case of Elizabethtown, I get the impression Crowe picked a lot of songs he liked and created a film around them. The tunes never serve the scenes, as the scenes seem to exist to feature to songs.
My God, this is a movie that climaxes with a musical montage! I don’t think it’s a spoiler to indicate that the final act features a long road trip in which Drew drives home to the accompaniment of a collection of mix CDs created for the occasion. Not only does the film suffer from the inclusion of yet another montage, but also it drops a few points due to the absurdity of the whole enterprise. The CDs are timed to perfectly coincide with each part of the road trip. What if Drew gets in a traffic jam or gets lost?
Never mind logic, though - Elizabethtown tosses that out the window. It’s never very clear why Drew’s shoe is such a monumental failure; after all, wouldn’t they test out the thing before they invest so much money in it? And isn’t it hard to believe that one shoe could lose almost a billion dollars? I’m not a businessman, but that seems hard to accept.
We also get a scene in which the seriously poorly behaved son of Drew’s cousin Jessie (Paul Schneider) apparently immediately changes his ways after he watches one short instructional videotape. Damn, I need me a copy of that tape! I work with kids like that – I wish I had such an easy solution.
That’s the problem with Elizabethtown: it lives in some bizarre world of fantasy, just chock full of unrealistic characters. The movie never bothers to attempt to explain why Drew became so distant and detached from saintly father, a man clearly beloved by all and seemingly a fine dad to Drew. I guess we’re supposed to accept that Drew simply became obsessed with his work, but I don’t quite buy that.
I also can’t accept the caricatures that populate the movie. Poor Dunst gets stuck with possibly the most absurd character of the bunch. Claire is arguably the most whimsical piece of quirkiness to grace the screen since Johnny Depp’s lead role in the sickening Benny and Joon. Dunst makes the character palatable, but she’s so ridiculously whimsical that she could only exist in the mind of a writer. And where in the world did she find the time to burn 42 hours of CDs?
At least Dunst fares better than Sarandon. Her character has nothing to do but look foolish until her One Big Scene. Even though she insists that she won’t come to the memorial for Mitch – longtime animosities keep her from Elizabethtown – she pops up at the last minute anyway. Then she gives a speech that includes a standup routine complete with a joke about a neighbor’s erection and some tap-dancing!
Add to that the memorial’s conclusion: a rock band’s performance of “Free Bird” that finishes with a fake bird that catches fire as it soars over the ballroom. How is it possible that the same man who created the sweet, memorable “Tiny Dancer” scene in Almost Famous can thrust such absurd, idiotic nonsense on us? I don’t know, but I can say that Elizabethtown stands as a major blemish on Cameron Crowe’s career. Silly, stupid and almost unwatchable, I hope the film doesn’t point toward a filmmaker in decline.