What creates a genius like James Brown or the likes of him? Hunger.
— Russ, Hanging with Russell in Memphis”
Russ is the real-life, music-loving proprietor of Earnestine & Hazel’s in Memphis. In an extended scene on the new DVD of Elizabethtown (called the Widescreen Special Collector’s Edition, though there’s not one thing special about it), he talks at the camera, and sort of at Orlando Bloom, who’s playing a character named Drew and sits at a bar, his eyes wide with a show of interest.
Russ talks about the famous and not so famous musicians who showed up at Earnestine & Hazel’s over the years, from Otis Redding to B.B. King, and how they’d eat neckbones and turnip greens. The stories are fine, but they’re certainly brief, even in this “extended” version. And yet, this short bit, called “Hanging with Russell in Memphis” on the DVD menu, sadly, the most noteworthy aspect of the DVD: aside from Russ, it offers “Training Wheels” (rehearsal footage, without comments or even a dialogue soundtrack), “Meet the Crew” (folks on the set), and two “extended scenes,” “Rusty’s Learning to Listen, Part 8” (the complete version of the house-building video the children watch in the film, an extra that is, frankly, unnecessary and unenlightening), “Hanging with Russell in Memphis” (an extended scene featuring the bartender who explains Memphis music history).
All of which goes to say, the DVD is as feeble as Cameron Crowe’s movie (he provides no commentary track for this notoriously troubled project, an absence that speaks the proverbial volumes.) Elizabethtown aspires to a sort of “freshness,” working hard to produce peculiar rhythms and offbeat comedy, but it’s repeatedly flattened by its dull boy hero’s predictable route to redemption. Most depressingly, his plot hinges on the Love of a Quirky Girl. Though Kirsten Dunst plays this girl as well as anyone, she’s limited here, partly because she’s set apart from the rest of the film’s focus (a community called Elizabethtown) and, more devastatingly, by the stifled object of her desire, Drew.
Miserable at film’s start, Drew explains in voiceover as a truck backs into a loading bay, bearing thousands of pairs of the Spasmotica, the shoe he’s designed for a mega sportswear company. He narrates his “fiasco” — personal, professional, and familial — which he defines as a “disaster of epic proportions.” Specifically, he’s designed the totally terrible and unsellable 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 supposed 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 (Jessica Biel).
When that’s done, he’s left facing his boss, Phil (Alec Baldwin), who dismisses him with apt disdain. Depressed, Drew 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 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.” The unevenly accented Claire claims an unseen boyfriend, about to arrive from somewhere else. She also 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. She sighs, “That’s because I’m one of a kind.”
Put another way: Claire will get what she wants when she wants it. Drew’s inability to grasp her specialness at first appears a function of his lack of small town values — he’s a city-thinker, shallow and dreary. He learns to appreciate the community while negotiating with his father’s family over what to do with the body (his mom, following dad’s wishes, wants to cremate, but the town and rest of the 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.
Once Drew has processed his experience (and watched his mother perform a tap dance to “Moon River” in honor of his dad), Elizabethtown goes on to a couple more endings, including a coda in the shape of a road trip, mapped and narrated by Claire and set to a rock classics-according-to-Crowe compilation soundtrack. This sets Drew’s life lessons against a troubling national history encompassing Elvis at Sun Studios and memorials marking Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the Oklahoma City bombing. This map appears to be about losses, recoveries, and recollections. But it’s so quirky and so resolutely not hungry, that you’re likely to care less by this point.