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Friday, Nov. 25, 2005


Laughing in the face of death


Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Cameron Crowe
Running time: 125 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
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There is actually a town in Kentucky called Elizabethtown, but writer-director Cameron Crowe's film of the same name sees it less as a place and more like Terry Gilliam viewed "Brazil" -- a state of mind. In Crowe's case this means a kind of bittersweet melancholy, where the death of a parent and total career meltdown coincide with falling in love and rediscovering the joys of family.

News photo
Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst in "Elizabethtown"

"Elizabethtown" is a slightly self-indulgent, rambling film, one that's less concerned with getting home on time than lazily wandering down the scenic routes and happily following the detours that arise. And if it happens to lose its way once or twice, well, that's life, is what Crowe seems to be saying.

As the film begins, we see Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) as he enters his job at Mercury footwear one last time. The sneaker he designed for the company is being recalled, to the tune of $972 million, and he's on his way to get sacked by the company's founder, Phil (Alec Baldwin). After a horrid day in which his coworkers shun him like a leper, Drew returns to his apartment with plans to end the misery by ending his life.

You can almost hear pop-music fanatic Crowe cue-ing up "Suicide Is Painless" on the soundtrack, but he somehow resists the urge. Don't worry, plenty will follow -- Tom Petty, The Hollies, Ulrich Schnauss and more -- but before we get to the pop-music montage, Crowe has to take us through the shadow.

Drew postpones his date with death when he gets a phone call from his sister, Heather (Judy Greer), telling him their father just died while visiting Elizabethtown, the placid Southern town where he grew up. Drew's mother, Hollie (Susan Sarandon), has gone to pieces, and it's up to him to travel to Elizabethtown to collect his dad's body and arrange a burial.

On an empty red-eye flight to Kentucky, Drew attracts the attentions of flight-attendant Claire (Kirsten Dunst). He's too numb to talk, but she more than makes up for that, leaving him with a map to Elizabethtown with her phone number on it. The set-up is a little too good to be true -- cute, witty, emotive stewardess throwing herself at her sole male passenger -- but Dunst's trademark chirpy charm makes it work.

She's so irresistible, in fact, you wonder how it's going to take an additional 100-plus minutes for Drew to fall for her. Crowe does add complications: Claire has an often-absent boyfriend, while Drew seems to still think he has a relationship with his coworker Ellen (Jessica Biel). On top of that, he's caught in the middle between his dad's friends and family in Elizabethtown, ex-military good ol' boys one and all, and his West Coast mother and sister. They insist on cremation, which the Southern men resist. Oh, and Drew still wants to off himself once this is over.

After an all-night heart-to-heart with Claire on his cell phone (Crowe remains hot-wired to the courtship rituals of the day), things look a bit more hopeful. She suggests he take some time for himself "to get into the deep beautiful melancholy of everything that has happened" and take a road trip through the Deep South once the funeral's over.

Crowe moves through his material with a light touch, sometimes sentimental bordering on sappy, sometimes romantic, and always angling for laughs. Occasionally he manages both at once. The hotel where Drew is staying is holding a boisterous wedding, a display of joy in stark contrast to the funeral Drew's preparing, yet Crowe draws some wicked laughs by having the drunken groom comment mawkishly on this very situation. And at the final postfuneral reception, where Drew's cousin Jessie (Paul Schneider) and his band play "Freebird," a papier-ma^che eagle catches fire and all hell breaks loose. It's a scene clearly reminiscent of the madcap comedy handled by Crowe's idol, director Billy Wilder.

Unfortunately, after this peak, Crowe tacks on enough protracted epilogues to rival "The Return of the King." The road trip Drew embarks on -- complete with specially prepared CD-burns from Claire -- is just one long montage that never rises above the level of playing U2's "Pride" as Drew visits the hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down. Although this has been trimmed somewhat from an earlier version shown at film festivals, it's still a misfire; Crowe is too much the populist to be heading into solipsistic Vincent Gallo territory. It doesn't fit with the tone of the film.

Beyond the finale, there's a sense that Crowe is rehashing old tropes from his previous films. Drew's career shambles is reminiscent of Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire" and Campbell Scott in "Singles," while the perky blonde who wraps the male lead around her little finger is straight out of "Almost Famous," as is the use of Elton John to score a powerfully poignant moment. Perhaps the film's worst moment -- where Sarandon has to tap-dance through her husband's funeral -- is also its worst bit of recycling. As the sound and dialogue cut out to be replaced by a softer musical score, Sarandon twirls as if in another world -- a scene which was done much better with Penny Lane dancing in an empty, post-concert hall in "Almost Famous."

Despite what's wrong with the film, it isn't -- as many critics would have you believe -- Orlando Bloom. His performance is low-key, sure, but if he looked like Paul Giamatti ("American Splendor") everyone would be praising his "understated subtlety" rather than damning his supposed "lack of range." Besides, the girls love him. Guys may shake their heads, but after ogling your way through Devon and Jessica in "Sin City," shut up and take one for the team and go with your girl to see this one.

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