Judge Joel Pearce believes that, like all Kentucky-based entertainments, this flick by Cameron Crowe is best enjoyed with a half-dozen or so mint juleps.
Sometimes the road ahead is paved with anything but good intentions.
While really dedicated fans of Cameron Crowe will probably find a lot to like about Elizabethtown, the people who found his other efforts unfocused and sappy will be even more enraged this time around. It's a shame, too, because I think there's a good movie in here somewhere.
Facts of the Case
Drew (Orlando Bloom, Pirates of the Caribbean) is having a bad day. He has just learned that a massive miscalculation will cost his shoe company about a billion dollars. Oh, and his dad died. In the midst of his own personal tragedy, his dad's death seems more like a nuisance than anything else, especially considering that his neurotic sister (Judy Greer, Adaptation) and his grief-boggled mother (Susan Sarandon, Moonlight Mile) need him to go to Kentucky and care for the funeral arrangements.
With only a few short days remaining before a media storm destroys his existence, Drew flies down to reunite with his father's hickish side of the family. On the plane, he meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst, The Virgin Suicides), a quirky stewardess who takes an immediate liking to him. Will she be able to show Drew the way through this difficult time in his life?
I believe that Cameron Crowe has another great movie in him, waiting to be made. Almost Famous worked because he dealt with material close to his own heart and experience, spinning it together with a hero young enough to have the teenage innocence that Crowe seems unable to get over.
I blame the music. We all know that Crowe is, at his core, a music guy who decided to try his hand at film. He assembles some of the best soundtrack albums ever, and has a keen ear for which songs to put where. However, mainstream rock has always remained trapped in a high school mentality. Whether that's a bid to eternally appeal to the teenage market or a comment on the intellectual development of most rock stars, it seems few mainstream artists ever break through and write music that's better suited to adults. Rock music is best at recalling the overwhelming joy and pains of first love, on a superficial level that feels almost impossible in retrospect.
And that's exactly how Cameron Crowe's films feel as well. Elizabethtown is a film about high school love, starring adults. Orlando Bloom makes a fine dramatic actor, and it's great to see him in a film with no epic battles or undead pirates. Drew is a character so unsure of himself, though, that he would only make sense if he were younger. Kirsten Dunst gives a fine performance as well, but she's the girl you fell in love with in high school and whom you now realize was phony and a bit obnoxious. This isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it doesn't meld with the other plot—Drew struggling with the death of his father. The death plot is distinctly for adults, and it's a shift in perspective we are asked to make over and over again throughout the film.
Then, to exacerbate the problem, it's often unclear whether this is a comedy or a drama. The humor is awkward, placed here because it's supposed to be a romantic comedy, not because it is a romantic comedy. Every time the characters and situations become genuinely touching, the moment is broken by screwball characters and physical gags. The family sequences have a number of Home Alone grade "bad kid" sequences, but then we are expected to accept the real consequences of the characters' actions. By the end of the two hours, we feel as though we have sat through three different films, all cut together into one colossal mess.
What would I have done? Probably canned the love story. It's the part of the film that works least, and a love interest wasn't required to show Drew the way. Any character could have done this just as well. Then, I would have humanized the family humor a bit. It did all come together at the end, but it was a bit rocky getting there. The best sequence of the film should have been the centerpiece sequences in Elizabethtown, rather than just the climax. I feel bad trying to fix the film, because most of it is actually quite good. There are delightful and brilliant moments in the love story. When Drew's mother does finally arrive in Kentucky, the generic oddness of her character gives way to one of the best sequences of the film. The soundtrack is phenomenal, perfectly capturing every step of Drew's journey. The family comedy is genuinely funny, and contains a generational clash that rings remarkably true.
If only the mixture hadn't turned out so disappointing. The film is also plagued by a number of holes and continuity problems. In one sequence Claire puts together an elaborate gift for Drew. But when did she find the time? It would take weeks to accomplish, not days, and she spends much of her time with him. A few characters disappear at the end, taking important side plots with them. I am guessing that, like most of Crowe's films, Elizabethtown was a much longer film, cut down to a manageable length in the eleventh hour or after some negative test screenings.
Elizabethtown should have been a great movie. Parts of it are excellent. But I am left with the feeling that it began as a great soundtrack, and that the drama and romantic comedy were an afterthought. If Crowe makes another great film, it will be great because he began with a story and built a great soundtrack around it.
The disc itself is well produced. The video transfer avoids most obvious flaws, except a bit of edge enhancement at times. The sound is fantastic, with the music appropriately power without steamrolling clear dialogue and ambient sound.
There are a few extras on the disc, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a special edition somewhere down the road. There is a short featurette called Training Wheels. It shows the characters during rehearsals. More unusual is a montage of the crew, a chance to see some of the many people behind the scenes. There are two extended scenes, one of them being the entire "Rusty: Learning to Listen" video that will be the highlight of the film for many viewers. There is also a photo gallery and a collection of trailers.
Elizabethtown is not a bad film. Some moments are genius, and a number are touching, funny, and delightful. If only it had all come together as a great film, I would be giving it my strongest recommendation. It doesn't, though, so I have to recommend it only for serious Cameron Crowe fans. Others may want to rent, but will be more than happy to return it to the video store afterwards. Here's hoping that Crowe's next film lives up to expectations.
This one isn't innocent, but I still believe in what's to come.
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• Training Wheels Featurette
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