Elizabethtown: Cameron Crowe’s Misfire, Starring Orlando Bloom and Kirstin Dunst

Can a filmmaker, even a gifted one like Cameron Crowe, survive three failures (albeit of different kinds) in a row? That’s the question posed by Crowe’s new film,  the romantic comedy Elizabethtown, which world-premiered at Venice and Toronto before getting wide theatrical release in October.

Elizabethtown follows Vanilla Sky, an artistic flop that made some money due to star (and producer) Tom Cruise, and Almost Famous, a movie that lost money at the box-office, but was decent artistically, winning Crowe the Original Screenplay Oscar.

Crowe’s romantic comedy is made in the mold of classic Hollywood zany screwball comedies of Frank Capra (You Can’t Take It With You) and Preston Sturges (Hail the Conquering Hero, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) with a touch of Billy Wilder, without the latter’s noir. As is known, these are estimable role models for Crowe, who also wrote an interview-length book about Wilder.

Like those masters’ comedies, Elizabethtown boasts a friendly, good-natured manner, and a wide array of colorful and eccentric characters, particularly the secondary ones, each of which is given screen time.

Problem is, the handsome lead, Orlando Bloom, again proves that he is not ready yet to carry a whole movie, and the lack of strong chemistry with Kirstin Dunst jut adds to the film’s shortcomings, as the duo take over the film’s second half, in which it turns into a road movie with wall-to-wall music, which is Crowe’s specialty.

The dialogue is lively and sharp, but there’s no narrative momentum, and the film is too vignettish to generate a sustained interest. With a running time of 136 minutes, the film extends its welcome by at least half an hour. The whole thing feels like a big wannabe movie party, which goes out of its way to force the characters and the viewers to have fun, but fails to provide good reasons for having such fun.

What saves the film from a total disaster are some the zany characters and some of the whimsical subplots, but the very premise, about depressed shoe-designer Drew Baylor (Bloom), planning his father’s funeral in a Kentucky small town and falling for a stewardess named Claire (Dunst) he meets en route, is not very promising.

Poorly titled, Elizabethtown suffers from another problem: its plot is too similar to Zack Braff’s Sundance indie hit, Garden State, which was co-released with great success by Fox Searchlight and Miramax last year.  The hero of Garden State was a disturbed young man who travels back East to New Jersey from California for the funeral of his mother, a visit that provides an opportunity to reconcile with a father who had never understood him and with whom he didn’t get along. In the process, he falls for a bright and quirky girl (played exuberantly by Natalie Portman). But whereas Garden State reflected the zeitgeist with its generational angst, in a way that Rebel Without a Cause did in 1955 and The Graduate in 1967, Elizabethtown is a lighter, more superficial fare.

Crowe’s world is eternally sunny full of cheerful people. The only mean (semi-mean) persons are the execs at the West Coast corporate headquarters of the footwear company Mercury, where Drew works. A brilliant designer of running shoes, the workaholic Drew has spent eight years ignoring friends and family while developing a unique new shoe for footwear mogul.

In a solid supporting turn, Alec Baldwin, as CEO Phil, reproaches Drew for designing sneakers that “may cause an entire generation to return to bare feet,” though it’s never made clear what about those sneakers has made them so disastrously dysfunctional costing Phil’s company $1 billion.

Crowe borrows some thematic elements from his previous films. Much like the titular character, played by Tom Cruise, in Jerry Maguire, Drew has fallen from grace and is in desperate need for a renewed self-esteem, healthier identity, and redemption. After Drew’s girlfriend Ellen (Jessica Biel) leaves him, he contemplates suicide, by attaching a sharp knife to his exercise machine so that it will stab him when he rides it.

However, he’s soon diverted by a call from his sister Heather (Judy Greer), informing him that their father has suddenly died in his hometown, Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and that Drew is needed there to oversee all the funeral’s details. Ordered to travel from their Oregon home to collect his father’s body, Drew takes a flight in which he’s the only passenger, which means that attendant Claire is all too willing to give him undivided attention. Claire is quickly smitten, though she claims to have a married lover who’s always out of town.

Meanwhile, Heather handles their manic bi-polar mother Hollie (Susan Sarandon), an eccentric in the mold of the mom in Almost Famous (played by Oscar-nominated Frances McDormand), who deals with her sorrow by taking tap dancing classes and later chooses the “wrong” opportunity to display them in public.

Hollie is just one eccentric character in a movie that’s replete with them. Drew meets cute with kooky stewardess Claire a prototypical Crowe love interest. Like Kate Hudson’ Penny Lane in Almost Famous, Claire is young, beautiful, immature, and neurotic.

In Elizabethtown, Drew gets to meet the members of his cheerful extended family, in scenes that recall in tone Capra’s exuberant family in You Can’t Take It With You. Nosey, loud, but good-hearted people, Drew discovers, dominate Elizabethtown. Once in town, the major conflict is over where Drew’s father will be buried, and whether he will be cremated, a ritual held in suspicion in small-minded Kentucky.

A parade of secondary characters begins with Aunt Dora (cooking-show host Paula Deen), Uncle Dale (country singer Loudon Wainwright III), cousin Bill (Bruce McGill), and rocker Jessie (Paul Schneider). In one of the film’s nicest moments, Jessie counters charges that he’s not giving his son “proper” education by claiming that he wants his kid “to know about both Abraham Lincoln and Ronnie Van Zant,” a reference to Southern icon Van Zant, the late Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer.

The movie may have too many zany characters for its own good, and allowing each one of them some screen time to express his/her personality not only takes time but also sidetracks from the main romantic line with too many detours. But then we realize that the love story is not particularly strong or interesting either. Early on, Drew and Claire establish a meaningful connection through an all-night call. We wait with anticipation for their romance to blossom in intriguing way, but, alas, Crowe seems to have run of ideas.

Crowe dwells far too long on his small-town stereotypical figures, instead of getting the leads out on the open road where they belong. Indeed, whatever fun the movie has finally begins when Drew sets off in his rental to drive from Kentucky across country to the coast, scattering his father’s ashes at various places along the way. Drew is guided by a map created and narrated by Claire, complete with side visits, pit stops and fabulous music as the couple drive through Memphis and Eureka Springs, Arkansau, then onto Oklahoma City and Scottsbluff, Nevada. The great open road of the American mid-South and West makes watching the film more tolerable, tough not sufficient enough to overcome its many shortcomings.

Both Bloom and Dunst give decent but not really engaging performances, and the chemistry between them is not particularly strong, either. Neither star has a strong erotic appeal, and we never feel that the couple belongs together in the way that we felt about Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross in The Graduate, or Zack Braff and Natalie Portman in Garden State.

Bloom is the main problem, as he was in the historic epic Kingdom of Heaven, which he couldn’t carry either, and the fact that he plays a passive, low-key role makes things worse. Though handsome and photogenic, the British actor is not commanding; we also close one ear to his in and out American accent. A more charismatic male star would have helped the flawed movie considerably. It’s hard to know what an energetic cookie like Claire sees in him.

With all the excitement of seeing great thesps like Sarandon in secondary roles, her Hollie is not worthy of her talent. A “wild” woman, Hollie took Drew’s dad away from Elizabethtown to California, even though they only lived there for 18 months before moving to Oregon for the next two decades. Playing a merry widow, Hollie tries to dazzles the guests with a long scene in the memorial service, which unfolds as a standup comedy routine and is concluded with a tap dance.

Despite major flaws, Elizabethtown is not utterly devoid of merits. The choice of original music includes tunes by artists like Elton John’s “My Father’s Gun” and Tom Petty’s “It’ll All Work Out,” along with upcoming performers like Ryan Adams’ (“Come Pick Me Up”) and “Hard Times” by Eastmountainsouth.

A director who loves actors, Crowe has shown fresh and quirky affinity for teen experience, with knowing tales of teen angst (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and savvy chronicles of sexual politics in the post-collegiate crowd of the 1990s (Say Anything, Singles). In these movies, he has displayed multi-nuanced characterization, the persuasive power of intimate conversations, and the intricacies and eccentricities of modern romance. Unfortunately, most of these qualities are in short supply in Elizabethtown.