Cameron Crowe phones it in
Cameron Crowe has made some of my favorite movies of the last 20 years: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything…, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. His new movie, Elizabethtown, has charm and an appealing cast: Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Bruce McGill and Alec Baldwin. Crowe seems to want nothing more than to give us a sweet, heartwarming show. I didn’t dislike Elizabethtown; in fact, Crowe has a way of making you feel churlish for not loving it. Yet, the movie, for all its pleasant vibes, hits one clunky false note after another. It’s almost as if Crowe is deliberately building an unreal universe, a hothouse where his cozy little whimsy can thrive.
Bloom plays Drew Baylor, a young man who, like Jerry Maguire, is at a career crossroads. Drew designed a highly touted athletic shoe for his Portland, Ore., company. But, in a looming fiasco, the shoe has been recalled, costing the company $952 million and scuttling Drew’s career. He decides to end it all by impaling himself on a butcher knife duct-taped to the handlebars of his stationary bike. Then he gets a call from his sister Heather (Greer), telling him that their father, Mitch, has suddenly died while visiting his hometown of Elizabethtown, Ky., about 70 miles from Louisville. Their mother, Hollie (Sarandon), and Heather dispatch Drew to make Mitch’s funeral arrangements. On the flight from Portland to Louisville (on which Drew is the only passenger), he meets Claire (Dunst), a flight attendant who brazenly comes on to him, even coaching him on how to pronounce their destination (it’s “Loo-uh-v’l,” not “Looey-ville”), and slips him her phone number along with detailed directions to Elizabethtown.
OK now, we’re about 30 minutes in; let’s review our story so far: (1) The hero plans to kill himself with a butcher knife and a stationary bike; (2) on a commercial flight, he has a whole jetliner entirely to himself; (3) his father grew up in Elizabethtown, and he himself has been back there often enough that children recognize him as he drives into town, yet a flight attendant has to tell him how to get there; and (4) he doesn’t know how to pronounce “Louisville.” All this in the first half-hour. Such unconvincing touches never stop coming.
This movie simply does not take place on planet Earth. The script seems thrown together out of random undeveloped ideas. As Drew and Claire become acquainted while he’s in Elizabethtown, the turning point comes during an all-night phone conversation, at the end of which they agree to meet and watch the sun come up together. And yet, we hear hardly a word of their talk; instead, the dialogue fades out, and Nancy Wilson’s pop-rock music takes over. We get none of the character revelation that Crowe packed into similar scenes in Jerry Maguire (such as Renée Zellweger’s wonderful “I love him because of the man he could be and almost is” speech), just the evocative music and Bloom and Dunst smiling and chattering into their phones. Later, Crowe does the same thing as Drew talks to his dead father. It’s as if Crowe were saying, “Right here there’s some really important dialogue, but I haven’t written it yet. Here’s some music to give you the feeling I’m looking for.” If I didn’t know this was the same Cameron Crowe who was writing for Rolling Stone at the age of 14, I’d almost think he was being lazy.
Other scenes must have sounded good in conference but make little sense. Claire sends Drew on a road trip with an elaborate scrapbook itinerary that would take weeks to compile, but she seems to whip it up overnight. At a memorial service for Drew’s father, his cousin’s band plays Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” and Hollie tap-dances to “Moon River.” “Freebird”? Susan Sarandon tap-dancing? Anyone tap-dancing to “Moon River”?
And yet, even at its most preposterous, Elizabethtown has a charm that will not be denied. It’s not just that we like the stars, or that we want Claire and Drew to end up together. It’s that we remember what Cameron Crowe did with Say Anything… and Jerry Maguire—and even as Elizabethtown keeps misfiring, we’re hoping he might do it again.