Watching Cameron Crowe's "Elizabethtown" made me sad, and not quite in the way this bittersweet film intended. It saddened me because I realized, watching the film the second time around, how much I was hoping that Crowe would have pulled it off.
"Elizabethtown" screened last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, in a version that felt overlong and badly unfocused — it told too many stories, none of them well. Before last week's screening, word was that he'd cut 18 minutes out. Alas, it didn't help.
And that hurts, because Crowe is that rarity: a talented filmmaker unafraid to show the warmth of his heart. In his best films (for me, "Say Anything" and "Almost Famous"), a genuine sweetness and generosity of spirit permeates, drawing us close to the characters and investing us in their fates.
And he's shown an uncanny eye for iconic images, often with music: John Cusack holding that boom box, his chin clenched and his eyes steady, outside the window of his true love in "Say Anything;" Kate Hudson's sweet, lost Penny Lane, whirling in the dust of an empty ballroom in "Almost Famous."
"Elizabethtown" has plenty of glimpses of Crowe's trademark warmth; the problem is that they're not channeled into a coherent narrative. The first 20 minutes or so are quite promising: Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) has just experienced a colossal business failure, spearheading a new shoe at a Nike-like company that has gone wrong.
"Elizabethtown," with Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, Bruce McGill, Judy Greer, Jessica Biel. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe. 117 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual references. Several theaters.
His boss (Alec Baldwin) tells him that he has lost the company $972 million. While he's at home contemplating suicide, his sister calls, sobbing: Their father has died while visiting family in Kentucky, and Drew must go bring the body home.
Here, the story changes and the movie veers off course. Drew's business failure is more or less abandoned, and "Elizabethtown" branches off into two other stories: Drew's chatty romance with a bubbly flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst), and his gradual orientation into his new Southern family.
Other subplots pour in: Drew's mother's (Susan Sarandon) obsession with activity to quench her grief; his cousin's (Paul Schneider) inability to control his young son. Crowe's customary rock soundtrack becomes oppressive: We're given story after story. And a road trip at the end, with reverent stops at American monuments, is ill-timed and excessive.
Bloom (doing a perfect American accent) and Dunst make a charming couple, and Crowe as always shows a careful sense of atmosphere; the movie nicely conveys that disorienting feeling of staying at a hotel where everyone else is part of a big party.
But it's as if, after veering away from familiar territory with the thriller "Vanilla Sky" (an interesting attempt that deserved more praise than it got), he's returning to a greatest-hits format, reprising themes and even scenes from his previous movies. (Dunst's spacey/wise character, in particular, is reminiscent of Hudson's in "Almost Famous.")
"Elizabethtown" isn't a fiasco on the scale of Drew's, but it's definitely a big disappointment. Crowe's capable of much better than this; let's hope he gets back on track with the next one.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org