Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Orlando Bloom, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Jessica Biel, Alec Baldwin
Running Time: 123 min.
**** (out of ****)
A couple of weeks ago I was flipping through the channels and caught this motivational speaker who said we all have a choice. We can celebrate what's wrong with the world or what's right with it. Cameron Crowe is a filmmaker who very much celebrates the former and makes no apologies for it. His glass isn't just half-full, it's completely full to the point that it's almost overflowing. Despite having written and directed one of my all-time favorite films (2000's Almost Famous) as well as some other personal favorites (Say Anything and Vanilla Sky) I was told by everyone to stay far away from Crowe's Elizabethtown because I would just be setting myself up for disappointment.
The advance buzz on this movie was terrible and those who had seen it assured me it was justified. When it was screened at the Toronto Film Festival it was met with such disdain Crowe was forced to cut 18 minutes. The trimmed theatrical version (which I'm reviewing now) fared no better with critics and audiences and I've yet to read a positive review on it from anyone, causing me to actively avoid it for over a year. Shame on me. Elizabethtown isn't just one of 2005's best movies, but a celebration of the human spirit and an unforgettable experience. It's why I love movies. It's been rare that I see critics and audiences miss the boat on a picture as much as this one. I went in expecting a chick flick but came out experiencing something far more rewarding and meaningful. What's most frightening is that it's not even close to being Crowe's best picture, as that honor still belongs to Almost Famous. It, does, however deserve a place in Crowe's canon and further confirms my belief he's one of our most interesting storytellers.
Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is a hotshot sneaker designer for a major billion dollar Oregon based shoe company clearly modeled after Nike. Drew is a star until he designs a sneaker called the Spasmodica, so horrible and ill-conceived (just look at the name) that it threatens to return the country to bare feet. As Drew narrates in the beginning, this is a "FIASCO," not a failure because fiascos "make other people happy it's not happening to them." In a few days it will be on the cover of every business magazine and the whole world will know. All Drew can do is wait. He enters the building to meet with C.E.O. Phil DeVoss (Alec Baldwin) and gets axed. This sequence must be seen to be believed as it doesn't go down at all like we're expecting it to and Crowe completely reverses all our expectations of how a movie firing scene is supposed to play out. He even treats us to a bizarre Alec Baldwin performance that manages to capture all the great zany weirdness he brings to his guest hosting stints on Saturday Night Live, but so rarely gets an opportunity to display in his big screen roles.
As if things weren't bad enough already, his hot girlfriend (Jessica Biel) dumps him and he returns home to his apartment to kill himself with the most inventive, but ineffective suicide contraption you'll ever see in a movie. But then the phone rings. It's his younger sister Heather (Judy Greer) telling him their father, Mitch has died of a heart attack visiting relatives and he has to come home to Elizabethtown, Kentucky to bury him. What happens over the next hour and a half is his journey.
On his plane trip to Kentucky, Drew is annoyed by a perky, ridiculously sweet and cheerful flight attendant named Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst) who makes it a point to draw him a map so he doesn't get lost when he gets there. The relationship that develops between Drew and Claire is tough territory to navigate if you're a director. Crowe though, knows what he's doing and the bond that develops between the two feels real and not forced like in so many other lesser films. He proves this in an all-night phone conversation scene with Claire and Drew. It's so tough to film a scene where two characters form a connection when they're in two entirely different locations. The way he films the scene using music, how he highlights their conversation and lets us know how much time is passing as they talk is brilliant. Even more impressive is that we never even notice it because we too are engulfed in the scene. This is how a real conversation between two characters like this would occur and the actors do a great job conveying the change that comes over them as they talk. It's at this moment that the movie turns the corner into something special.
Rich storytelling has become a lost art among today's directors, but nearly every scene in this film excels at it. I loved how when Drew arrived in Elizabethtown they greeted him as a returning folk hero because of the admiration they had for his dad. He doesn't know any of them, but they sure feel like they know him. I liked how time was devote to developing every single character no matter how important they were to the story. Like the little touch of Drew's cousin Jessie's heroes being Ronnie Van Zant and Abraham Lincoln and how his band almost opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd. I loved the video they showed the little kids to force them to behave and how they questioned Jessie's style of parenting. I loved how Bruce McGill (Animal House) portrays a smooth-talking family friend who once scammed Drew's dad out of a lot of money yet he's hanging around the house like he's family with a guilty look on his face. They feel like real touches and add up to a whole lot when the final credits role. Crowe even manages to get us to care about the wedding party that's staying at Drew's hotel when, in just a couple of scenes, he somehow manages to also weave them in as an integral part of the story.
When Drew's mom Hollie (Susan Sarandon) arrives, the movie takes advantage of a great opportunity to show an intergenerational culture clash between the two sides of the family over Mitch's wishes before his death. It's cremation vs. burial, but the hard feelings run deeper than that. Sarandon's performance in this role is just right. She goes through all the emotions that a woman who just lost her husband would, without overplaying any of them. Sarandon has a really difficult scene where she gives a speech at Mitch's memorial service to a roomful of relatives who despise her character. How she turns the crowd to her side and makes them laugh and cry with her could have been cringe inducing, but in Sarandon's capable hands it becomes moving. Drew's dad hardly has a scene in the movie, but because of these characters, we feel like we've know him forever.
Elizabethtown has often been compared to Zach Braff's Garden State, and it's not hard to see why. Both thematically cover the same territory with introspective twenty-somethings coming home to find themselves and both films feature memorable soundtracks. However, the comparison is unfair. It's unfair because I think this film is much better. Something always bothered me about Natalie Portman's performance in Garden State but I could never put my finger on it. Something about it seemed a little forced and out of her comfort zone. Now I realize I wish she gave the performance Kirsten Dunst gives in this movie. Here, Dunst is completely in her element like never before. She lights up the screen and she's so full of life, optimism and energy that you just can't help but love Claire. She starts out as an annoying stewardess, but then along with Drew you slowly start to realize there's something much deeper to this character and you'd believe she's capable of bringing this guy back from the emotional dead.
Orlando Bloom has the tougher job in this as the lead. He's been criticized for being too wooden and passive but that's what's called for. The whole point of the movie was to see him slowly open up to the world and wake up emotionally. Bloom couldn't have done a better job conveying that. Here's a scary thought: The role of Drew Baylor was originally supposed to go to Ashton Kutcher. Enough said.
Crowe (a former writer for Rolling Stone magazine) is often criticized for jamming all of his favorite songs into his films. So what? He's got great taste in music and is one of the few directors who understands the impact music can have in a movie. He also knows that music is the soundtrack to our lives and when we think of a memory or a moment, more often than not there's a song playing in the background (even if it's just in our heads). This soundtrack spares no expense with great stuff from Tom Petty, Elton John, Ryan Adams, My Morning Jacket and more. His wife Nancy Wilson (from Heart) supplies the score, as she does for all of his films, and as usual, the music fits the material perfectly.
The movie is based on Crowe's own trip to Kentucky after his father passed away, ironically just as his first film Say Anything hit theaters in 1989 . One of the top rules always listed for screenwriters is to not to write about personal experience. Thankfully, he doesn't follow it and should be an inspiration to anyone who ever thought about writing something autobiographical, but fears no one will care. He wears his heart on his sleeve and leaves everything up on the screen. It probably killed him to have to cut anything out of his film, but honestly the movie is fantastic as it is and 18 minutes probably wouldn't make a huge difference either way (although you never know as the uncut version of Almost Famous is far superior to the theatrical version).
The ending of the film I wouldn't dare give away. Let's just say if the first hour and fifty minutes of the film made me proud to be a moviegoer, then the last ten minutes of it made me proud to be an American. Crowe takes us on a tour through America we'll never forget, convincing us this adventure was deeper than we gave it credit for. Some will claim the ending's unrealistic. She'd never have the time or take the effort to do what she does for him. It's a testament to this story that I believed she would.