Review: Elizabethtown (2005)

Directed By: Cameron Crowe
Written By: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Paul Schneider, and Alec Baldwin
Synopsis: A failed young exec on the verge of killing himself returns to Elizabethtown, KY, to take care of the details of his estranged father's funeral.

Most reviews of Elizabethtown so far have dealt with its relation to Cameron Crowe: after all, if there's any modern-day director who defines the auteur theory, Crowe is it, and Elizabethtown is no exception. But the unlikely facts of the matter are that this review may end up being mostly about Orlando Bloom.

I've reviewed Bloom's work before: the troubled and mediocre Kingdom of Heaven, the abhorrent Ned Kelly. And I'm no stranger to putting the man in a box, he's spent most of his short career on one-note performances. Outside of Cruise, he's bashed more than any man in Hollywood. But the honest fact is that Bloom delivers a performance in Elizabethtown of the most sublime, subtle power.

Oh, snicker if you must. But I was paying pretty close attention on this one, and I'll stand by that statement. Let me try to convince you:

Elizabethtown is a complete mess. There's no way around it. Even those who truly loved the movie (I have a pretty fond impression myself) have to admit that it is, in many ways, a trainwreck of a movie. It's a structural wasteland, based, as far as I could tell, on some private, four-act structure that Crowe invented just for this picture. The music is turned up loud and often, usually at the expense of dialogue, story, and, indeed, logical sense.

But through it all, there is Bloom, creating space for himself as Crowe's whirlwind love letter to family, Ketucky, and timelessly rootsy pop tunes spins out of control. As each scene crashes around him, Bloom does what great actors do: he acts as if he believes so much what he's doing that the viewer can't help believe, too. It's tough to imagine, but Bloom is carrying, truly carrying, a picture.

In one extended sequence, as Elizabethtown's omnipresent voiceover wanders through some off-subject background info, Bloom stares curiously at his father's casket. He wanders around the casket, brow furrowed, and there's no narrative reason for us to care, or even wonder at his thoughts. But we do, simply because, somewhere in that strange, awkward, effeminate delivery, Bloom made me buy it, he sold me that he's a troubled man with deep pain floating just below the surface. It's something terrible and suicide-worthy, we feel, but nothing a little Tom Petty couldn't fix. Bloom's character is mostly an empty nothing of a person, but somehow I became convinced perhaps this is a man with a story that deserved to be told.

Oh, yes, the story. I always forget. Elizabethtown is the tale of Drew Baylor, a young business exec at a monstrous shoe corporation whose brilliant career-making shoe design manages to lose his company a billion dollars. Frustrated and angry in that self-righteous way leading men always are at the beginning of cheerful romantic comedies, he builds an unbelievably appalling suicide machine out of an exercise bike and is on the verge of killing himself when the phone rings (this is the first, and only, plot point in Elizabethtown). His father has died on a trip to meet family in Kentucky, and the family needs him to go to Elizabethtown to take care of the details. Baylor goes because, hey, families stick together, and he can totally commit suicide whenever, so there's no rush.

On the way, he meets an amazingly cheerful flight attendant (Dunst), and the strange and estranged extended Baylor family (Schneider, Bruce McGill, plus a lot of pleasant chubby people), a collection of cheerfully redneck Kentucky down-home boys.* It's at this point that the pop music really starts rolling.

I'll lay my cards on the table at this point: I love Cameron Crowe. Diss Vanilla Sky all you want, I'll stand behind it forever - not to mention the '70's-nostalgia perfection of Almost Famous. But the first hour and a half of Elizabethtown almost feels like someone's been imitating Crowe. It's got all the elements there: the music, the trip-down-memory-lane vibe, the solid acting - but it's too heavy-handed. There's no frothy dialogue, no memorable lines, few standout performances. It's jumpy and awkward and not fully fleshed-out. It's all just sort of... mediocre.

But, in the same way that Bloom's performance slowly grows and and grows, so does Crowe's film. It just gets there in an awkward way - though, to me, a particularly funny one, because in my mind, Crowe has made a textbook student film. I can just see him sitting in some Hollywood office, talking to his producer: "okay, so I had this idea where I see Orlando Bloom drinking Ale-8, and Susan Sarandon dancing through the spotlight, and Kirsten Dunst smiling a lot, so I wrote this story around it, but I don't want it to follow a typical 'three-act' structure. See, it's about this guy, and he's all torn up, he's gonna commit suicide, but then he meets this girl, who just comes up to him from nowhere and she's amazing, and his life starts to turns around - and then he goes to meet his family, and they're all crazy, but you really like them, and the story never really resolves itself, but there's great music, and a great vibe, and at the end everyone just feels good." And since his producer is Tom Cruise, he gets the green light.

I pitch that same idea every week to my professors, and they always give the thumbs down. I'm beginning to see why. But the fact is that by the time the credits are rolling, Crowe has made it work. The pop music that was so frustrating and overbearing throughout suddenly seems to pull the images together. The story finds narrative flow. You start to care about the characters. And suddenly, without any idea why, you're happy. Elton John is pounding through "My Father's Gun" again, and you're watching Kentucky fences fly by, and Dunst is still smiling her heart out, and Bloom is now wandering through America's heartland talking to his father's ashes in the passenger seat, and yet... it just all seems right. Kudos, Cameron. I don't know how you did it.

Breakdown: Lessee here, Cameron, you get two stars for getting such an excellent performance out of Bloom, two stars for a fantastic soundtrack, and one for beautifully evocative cinematography. Since I completely sympathize with all of your mistakes on the film, we'll only take off half a star for having no structure whatsoever, and half a star for trying to jam too much music into the flick. We'll follow that up with another half-star off for disappointing subplots featuring Paul Schneider and Susan Sarandon, among others, and another half-star for occasionally resorting to pointless slapstick. We'll let that cover it - keep in mind I didn't mention dialogue, Cameron, you're getting off easy. Three Stars.

* Most reviewers have discounted the realism of the peppy Kentucky family as mere blue-state opinioning on red-state values, which simply reveals these reviewers as hapless blue-staters. They may, indeed, have "their finger on the pulse of the nation," but have probably never sat in a Waffle House at three in the morning, ordered steak and grits, and put Conway Twitty's "Red Necking, Love Making Night" on the jukebox (not that I'm condoning such behavior). I'm not claiming to be a native, but to someone who dearly loves the people of the Bluegrass State, Crowe makes Baylor's family feel like home.