Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown does not know how to end. Or, for that matter, how to begin or develop or provide much in the way of sustained entertainment. Though it plainly aspires to a sort of “freshness,” given its peculiar rhythms and offbeat comedic moments, it’s repeatedly flattened by its focus on a dull boy hero’s predictable route to redemption. Most depressingly, his plot hinges on the Love of a Quirky Girl.
Kirsten Dunst plays the Quirky Girl as well as anyone (okay, maybe not as well as Katharine Hepburn, who pretty much patented the concept in Bringing Up Baby). But her job here is hard, partly because she’s set off, apart from the rest of the film’s focus (a community called Elizabethtown) and, more devastatingly, by the stifled object of her desirous quirk, Drew (Orlando Bloom).
Miserable at the start of the film, Drew starts explaining, in voiceover. A truck backs into a loading bay, bearing thousands of pairs of the Spasmotica, the shoe he’s designed for a mega sportswear company. A warning reads, “Watch your head.” It’s good advice for what follows. Drew goes on to give an accounting of his “fiasco” — personal, professional, and familial — which he defines as a “disaster of epic proportions.” Specifically, he’s designed a totally terrible, unsellable, even laughable shoe called the Spasmotica. It’s so awesomely bad that it costs the company close to a billion dollars. Pithy, sometimes slo-mo flashbacks show the boy’s ascent through the cubicled ranks, his perceived brilliance at a company Christmas party (for which he misses his family’s Christmas dinner), and his minute’s worth of romance with fellow employee and success-infatuated girlfriend Ellen (Esquire‘s Sexiest Woman Alive Jessica Biel). But when that’s done, he’s left facing his boss, the awesomely smug and significantly named (after Mr. Nike) Phil (Alec Baldwin), who dismisses him with apt disdain.
Drew’s depressed by his pile on of failures, or at least he says as much in his oddly unself-aware voiceover. And so he turns briefly suicidal (taping a huge and shiny kitchen knife to his exercise bike, as if to stab himself while riding to nowhere). Before he can do the deed, however, he gets a phone call that changes his life: his father has died in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and he needs to retrieve the body and return it to Oregon, home of his mom Hollie (Susan Sarandon) and sister Heather (Judy Greer).
Drew’s journey will, of course, be enlightening and healing, a result augured by his first encounter with the sole flight attendant on his flight, on which he is the sole passenger. During this extended magical moment (and it does go on), he isn’t quite smitten by Claire (Dunst), but she gives him her number anyway. Feeling especially bereft some hours later in a hotel populated by weekend wedding partiers, he calls her. At this point the movie slides ever deeper into banality, as their all-night cell phone conversation allows them to appear in an exceedingly unclever montage of places and poses — the tub, the bed, the couch, the hotel hallway where Drew runs into the drunken groom-to-be, who toasts their disparate events — funeral and wedding, ending and beginning.
As usually happens during such montages, the couple reveals their own deep thoughts, as these will form the basis for their long-lasting relationship. Claire, especially, is full of them: “Nobody’s as anxious as they think they are,” “Men see things in a box, and women see them in a round room,” and, most painfully, “I think I’ve been asleep my whole life.” (And you’re getting sleepy just hearing it.)
The movie takes its time getting to the couple’s commitment clinch, as the unevenly accented Claire (who knows where she’s really from?) says she has an unseen boyfriend, about to arrive from somewhere else. Maybe more importantly, Claire insists that she and Drew are “the substitute people,” standing in during crises. Never mind, Drew is increasingly liking hr. “I’m not used to girls like you,” he says. Ahh, she sighs, “That’s because I’m one of a kind.” (And you’re thinking, I’ve seen this movie before.)
The clinch is mostly put off for Drew’s sake of course, as it’s clear by now that Claire will get what she wants when she wants it. He needs to absorb a slew of life lessons before he can fully appreciate the anomalous beauties of this special girl. It could be that his inability to grasp her at first results from his intensely personal, unshared memories of his father (mostly fond); his complete misreading of Ellen (as a girlfriend); and/or his immersion in cubicle-design-think (where he was, in sequence, a star and a loser), but the movie doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation. It does offer plenty of banal celebrations of small town values. Not only does Drew come to appreciate the casseroles (courtesy of an aunt played by cooking show host Paula Deen), instant familiarity, and cozy collective that is Elizabethtown, but he’s also witness to what seems a three-tiered father-son dysfunction: his uncle (Loudon Wainwright III), his “Freebird”-loving cousin Jessie (Paul Schneider, whose terrific performance situates him in what seems another dimension), and his little screaming meemie nephew Samson.
He’s learning his lessons while he’s negotiating with his father’s family over what to do with the body (his mom, following dad’s wishes, wants to cremate, the town/family wants to bury). Drew wins points by providing Jessie with an answer to his loudly unruly son (whom Jessie is treating like his friend, by the way, and not his son), in the form of a videotape featuring a man in a hardhat who transfixes his young viewers by promising to explode a house if they promise to obey their parents. Like magic, the kids gathered before the tv all nod in wide-eyed agreement, including little monster Samson. The house explodes, and Drew’s a star again, in a different universe. (You’re wondering about the stunning obviousness or obscurity of this device, the exploding house.)
By the time Drew has processed His Experience (and watched his mother perform a tap dance to “Moon River” in honor of his dad), Elizabethtown is quite over, thank you. Or no. It persists, with a coda in the shape of a road trip, mapped and narrated by Quirky Girl and set to a rock classics-according-to-Crowe compilation soundtrack, setting Drew’s life lessons against an outlandish national history encompassing Elvis at Sun Studios, and memorials marking Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the Oklahoma City bombing. Maybe it’s about losses, recoveries, and recollections. And maybe it’s about not knowing how to end.