In “Elizabethtown,” writer-director Cameron Crowe returns to the sort of filmmaking he does best: Personal stories of youth and triumph, with hard-fought romance set to a snappy adult-alternative soundtrack.
So why does this particular Crowe offering feel so desperately whimsical, so lost?
The director may have gotten too personal this time around. Pounding out his flat American vowels like they were red-hot strips of iron, Orlando Bloom (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) plays Drew Baylor, a rising star at a Nike-style athletic shoe company. Suffering a classically Crowe-ish fall from grace, Drew is canned when his latest shoe model turns up a fatal design flaw, costing the company close to a billion dollars.
“We could have saved the planet,” laments the firm's hippie-dippie CEO (Alec Baldwin).
Sadly, Drew is not a get-back-on-your-horse, Jerry Maguire type of guy. He tosses out all of his possessions and fashions a crude suicide machine out of an exercise bike and a kitchen knife. Suffice to say, there's something incongruous and labored about Drew's funk, maybe because of the way Bloom plays it (bemused, pathos-free) or maybe because depression and shame aren't thematic muscles that the perpetually upbeat Crowe (“Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous”) is accustomed to flexing.
Ironically, Drew is offered a reprieve from his final exit by the unexpected passing of his father. Acting on behalf of his overwhelmed sister (Judy Greer from “The Village”) and mother (Susan Sarandon), Drew flies to small-town Kentucky to retrieve the body from his father's big, kooky extended family. En route, he meets a talkative, sweetly persistent flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) who alone seems to sense his pain. (Zach Braff covered all this territory, and more capably, in last year's “Garden State.”)
For every scene that works in “Elizabethtown,” there are three or four that seize up and die. For example, the scene where Drew first stands over his father's open casket: Dry and digressive. Or the marathon cell-phone conversation that Drew shares with the flight attendant, Claire: Contrived and humorless. Or Drew's dinner-table rant about why dad will be cremated and that's final! — in which Bloom hardly seems to hear the words coming out of his own mouth. It's a stiff, uninventive performance, swerving wildly between passion and indifference.
Dunst fares little better. As Claire, the “Spider-Man” star comes off more punchy than free-spirited, like somebody who hasn't slept in a few days. (The scene where she walks up to a podium in an empty reception hall and greets an imaginary audience is one of the most mystifying things I've seen all year.) The upshot of all this is that “Elizabethtown” is woefully inadequate as a love story; it lacks the magic of Crowe's “Say Anything” and the boyish longing of “Almost Famous.”
Nor does it resonate as a statement about family. At best, the Baylor brood is a cheering section — half-conceived characters with no real contour of their own. This especially applies to Drew's cousin Jessie (Paul Schneider from “The Family Stone”), a failed musician and single father who Crowe invents specifically so he can sing “Freebird” in the film's chaotic closing moments.
Ultimately, it's up to Sarandon to salvage what little patience we have left for “Elizabethtown,” with a charming little vaudeville routine in memory of the deceased that constitutes the movie's only half-way true and tender moment.
Crowe based the script on his personal experiences as a young man, and maybe that's the problem: He expects more from the story than the story is willing to give, sees profundities where there are none. If anything, “Elizabethtown” proves that you can't just throw a bunch of Tom Petty songs at an audience and expect them to dance.