Cameron Crowe is a filmmaker who knows the ins and outs of falling in love. From the awkward groping of teenagers trying to make a connection in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Say Anything, to the postmodern cynics realizing that sex means something in Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky, to the commitment-phobic playboy finding his heart in Jerry MacGuire, his work has covered almost every variation of it.
The amazing thing about all these films is that, though they begin with players in different stages of life, the relationships Crowe forges always feel authentic. The key to making all these amours work in the past was a flawed, yet enchanting object of affection—that is, a cute girl. But in his latest film, Elizabethtown, Crowe may have overplayed his ideal woman hand.
The film opens with Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), a wunderkind tennis-shoe designer whose latest project has failed abominably, preparing to commit suicide by throwing himself, hari-kari style, onto a dagger strapped to his Lifecycle. A call from his sister (Judy Greer) informing him that their father has died saves him from his impending death-by-cardio, and almost immediately, Drew puts his wallowing into perspective and flies to Elizabethtown, Kentucky to confront his grief, his fear, his failure, and his extended family. However, like Jerry Maguire, Drew needs a woman to help him complete his transition into maturity. Enter Claire Colburn, the flight attendant on Drew’s empty plane to Louisville that knows just the right things to say and do to guide the young man safely through his storm.
And here, after a deliciously wicked cameo by Alec Baldwin (I know a lot of conservatives wish he would have fulfilled his campaign promise and moved elsewhere when his guy lost, but the guy’s such a phenomenal actor, I just can’t be one of them), is where the problems start.
Of course we expect Drew’s love interest to be mildly more impressive than some dingy club-hopper, but Crowe makes Claire so worthy of Drew’s affections, she feels artificial. Whereas Renee Zellweger’s Dorothy in Jerry MaGuire betrayed lovable insecurity and naiveté, Claire is inexplicably wise beyond her years. She incessantly makes statements like, “I want you to experience deep, beautiful melancholy,” that sound pretentious coming from a girl in her early twenties (actually, they sound pretentious coming from anyone, but especially from Kirsten Dunst’s chirpy mouth.)
But even more unreal than the things Claire says, are things she knows.
In the midst of a busy life as a flight attendant, she has the resources to craft the world’s most interactive road map, complete with advice on which off-the-beaten-path restaurant has the best chili and what old-timer to visit for inside information on the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Along with her roadmap, she creates a mix tape full, not only of obscure blues and rock songs, but her own insightful observations about life, love, and history.
In fact, Claire isn’t just perfect, she’s downright magical.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some nice moments between Drew and Claire, and even some great lines. But unlike classic Crowe lines (“You complete me,” “I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen.”) they just hang in space, apropos of nothing. It’s as if the plot was formed around the lines rather than flowing naturally from the interaction of the characters.
Other elements feel similarly awkward.
Drew’s mother (Susan Sarandon) leaves it to her son to fly to his father’s hometown to make funeral arrangements because she doesn’t get along with the relatives. This alone might not make her the most narcissistic woman on the planet, but the fact that she then leaves her fragile daughter to deal with her grief alone so that she can “embrace life” by taking dancing lessons and comedy classes does.
Apparently, we are supposed to feel that Sarandon’s character displays courage because she immediately tackles new hobbies and tells broken car engines, “You will not defeat me.” And maybe if these activities led to an emotional climax, we could forgive her inability to acknowledge anyone else’s need to mourn. Instead, she continues in a blissful state of Norma Desmond-like bravado, making even her husband’s funeral all about her. By the time she does a spotlighted tap dance and stand-up routine at the memorial, you can’t help thinking, “Well no wonder the man’s family doesn’t like her!”
Yet, it is impossible to completely write off Elizabethtown since, behind the cute convergence of an even cuter couple, a larger story—a better story—lurks. It starts with Drew wanting to off himself over something as ludicrous as a running shoe. It ends with him seeing his father and himself through the eyes of relatives who live in a place where money and success do not equal greatness.
The part of Elizabethtown that most resonates has nothing to do with Drew and Claire and their relationship. It has to do with a young man dealing with the loss of his father and the loss of his invincibility, but finding something better than being a proverbial “master of the universe.” Had the film focused on this aspect, it could have been as emotionally satisfying as Crowe’s earlier films.
During a recent interview with Crowe, when I mentioned his tendency to dwell on the initial stages of romance, he laughed and said, “I know, its like, ‘move on already, will ya!”” While I wouldn’t put it that way, the strains of more mature subjects underneath this film suggest that it may indeed be time for him employ his considerable talent on something other than young love. Maybe he just needs a cute girl to tell him that there are other stages of life waiting for him elsewhere.