You had me at “Spasmotica.”
Cameron Crowe, director of Elizabethtown, has a knack for the perfect detail. In Elizabethtown, one of them comes along at the start: a billion dollars’ worth of high-end athletic shoes are being returned to the factory, and on each box the ultra-hip name reads “Spasmotica.” With two dots over the first “a.”
We never learn what made this shoe such a failure, but the young genius responsible for the design, Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), is somewhere between numb and suicidal. He rides a golf cart down the long office corridors to a meeting with his boss, Phil (avuncular Alec Baldwin), who tells him, “I cry a lot.” The disaster will require, among other things, firing the staff of the corporation’s global environmental project. “Sweet people,” Phil muses. “We could have saved the planet.”
All this tips Drew firmly into the suicidal camp, but after he’s carted all his worldly possessions to the curb and taped a knife to the chest bar of his exercise machine, the phone rings. Drew’s dad has died while visiting relatives in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Drew has to go bring him home.
Crowe is a director who admires mid-century filmmakers like Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, and published a book of his conversations with Billy Wilder. Something of a young genius himself, Crowe was a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine while still in his teens, an experience which was the inspiration for his 2000 movie Almost Famous (which won Crowe a screenwriting Oscar). He’s got a big heart, and reportedly broke down in tears while directing some emotional scenes in Jerry Maguire (source of the popular “You had me at ‘Hello’” line.)
Yet those earlier movie directors balanced heart with head, and had a surer grip on the reins. Instead of firmness, Crowe has earnestness. But all the sincerity in the world can’t make up for a boggy soft spot in the middle of a picture.
Where Elizabethtown charms is with the citizens of that small community, who are down-to-earth, affectionate, and quirky in unfailingly appealing ways. Paula Deen, who hosts Paula’s Home Cooking on the Food Network, steals the show as Drew’s Aunt Dora. And that’s the problem: She and the other down-home characters, who seem to be lined up in the wings awaiting their rotation on-screen, are more engaging than the central pair the story is supposed to be about.
Elizabethtown is a love story, and a fairly conventional one at that. As one of the only passengers on the redeye flight to Kentucky, Drew is the reluctant target of attention of chatty flight attendant Claire (Kirsten Dunst). Later, alone in a hotel room, and unable to get anyone else on the phone, he phones her and they talk all night. They impulsively decide to drive to a halfway point and watch the sunrise together. But when they meet, both are too exhausted to do anything but stare at the horizon and sag. “We passed our peak on the phone,” Claire says.
That’s the kind of original note that makes Crowe’s work so likeable. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough of them in Elizabethtown. The characters of Claire and Drew are both problematic, in ways that are more disjointed than interesting. Claire presents herself as someone with an uncanny ability to read people; a glance at the blue suit Drew’s carrying on a hanger tells her that this supposed visit to his dad is post mortem. She is level-headed and capable as a flight attendant must be, and in a scene where a hotel room is on fire she directs the sprinkler-drenched people to safety coolly and cheerfully. So when she and Drew have a breakdown in communication–a plot necessity to impede their budding romance–it’s not credible that she would be this dim. Her impulse to be a “helper,” as she puts it, and to load Drew with advice and maps from their first meeting, is a little bit creepy. And overall there are just too many lingering shots where you can imagine Crowe’s voice off-screen: “OK, Kirsten, just stand there and look adorable.”
And Orlando Bloom, unfortunately, just doesn’t have the center of gravity necessary to carry a picture like this. He was a fine Legolas in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and dressed up nicely in costume pieces like Troy and Kingdom of Heaven. But he doesn’t have enough angst to make Drew interesting. In many ways the character revisits Jerry Maguire, whose story also began with a spectacular job failure, and who proceeded on to a much more interesting and complex romance. But Tom Cruise had some knotty interior tension to bring to that role. Under Crowe’s direction, Bloom comes near imitating Cruise’s physical energy and comedic gifts, and Crowe manages to find camera angles that make Bloom less pretty. But Bloom is just too nice, polite, and generally tranquil to charge up the role of a grieving son.
One more curiosity about this film: Is it really believable that the death of a beloved local man in a small Kentucky town would pass without a single reference to the afterlife? God-language is so studiously avoided that it becomes the elephant in the funeral parlor. The physical reality of death is likewise denied. The film preserves the illusion that bodies are for the use of twenty-somethings rolling around in the sheets, and other uses–for example, aging, decay, and death–are not proper topics. The polite corpse appears only in the form of gray powder. Drew sprinkles his dad’s remains around parking lots and theme parks, like Tinkerbelle, as the mood strikes him. It’s a game attempt to gloss over the big questions of life, but the result is inevitably shallow.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.