March 7, 2006
Cameron Crowe is something of a rarity in that he’s a filmmaker who makes deeply personal films within the Hollywood system. From his debut with Say Anything (1989) to his best film to date, Almost Famous (2000), he effortlessly blends comedy and drama in the same way as James L. Brooks does with his movies but without the obvious T.V. influences. There is always a certain amount of anticipation for a new Crowe film and Elizabethtown (2005) was no different. However, after a negative reaction at the Toronto Film Festival, he re-edited his movie and put it into wide release where it was critically panned and a commercial failure. So, what happened?
After being fired from his job for designing an expensive, over-hyped running shoe that is subsequently recalled (costing the company a whopping $972 million); Drew Baylor (Bloom) learns the same day that his father has died. Like Jerry Maguire, Drew is a young, successful executive who suffers an Earth-shattering failure that forces him to re-evaluate his entire life. Drew has to go to Elizabethtown in Kentucky where his father died, and bring his body back home.
On the plane, he meets Claire (Dunst), an irrepressible stewardess who talks his ear off on the flight. Upon his arrival, Drew is quickly immersed in Southern hospitality at the hands of his father’s family and friends. It is all a bit overwhelming for the shell-shocked Drew but it puts us in familiar Crowe territory as we’re presented with the warm, inviting family full of colourful characters.
Unlike other Crowe movies that usually start with the audience getting to know the characters, this film starts with a big plot point and then works its way back, allowing us to get to know them. This is symbolized with an opening shot of a warehouse filled with boxes of recalled running shoes. All of his other films began with people, a warm human element. This film, initially, feels cold which is unusual for a Crowe film and a symptom of the problems plaguing it.
Outside of David Lynch, nobody captures the essence of American suburbia better than Crowe does. In a few seconds, shots of tree-lined streets, green, well-manicured lawns and kids playing in the yard play across the screen – a thumbnail sketch of the heart and soul of America. Crowe backs this up with his customary spot on soundtrack as he pulls out all the classics: Neil Young, Elton John, Tom Petty, The Temptations and so on. Only he, Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese can get away with wallpapering their movies with music and it not feeling like overkill. Crowe uses music to establish a specific mood for each scene because he knows the power it has to evoke memories in the individual. The songs in his movies act like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action, becoming almost like another character.
Crowe is an earnest dreamer and a hopeless romantic who wears his heart on his sleeve and this film is no different. Like every other Crowe protagonist, Drew must go on a personal journey and discover something about himself. This role needs an actor who can convey more emotions and Orlando Bloom either doesn’t have the experience or the chops to pull it off. The character of Claire is so obviously a nod to Penny Lane from Almost Famous with a dash of Renee Zellweger’s eternally optimistic character in Jerry Maguire. And yet Kirsten Dunst is also miscast, coming across more as annoying and grating than adorable and cute. Matthew McConaughey and Zellweger would have been better in these roles because they are warmer more natural performers with more experience.
Because Crowe set the bar so high with his previous work we expect more every time out. Elizabethtown probably would have been better received if this was his first movie. The director is aping his prior work rather obviously. He’s a better filmmaker than this and I feel that this is why his movie was so poorly received.
Fans expecting the usual souped-up special edition that Crowe has graced us with in the past will be disappointed by the lack of extras, most significantly the absence of a commentary track from Crowe.
“Training Wheels” is a brief montage of behind-the-scenes footage set to music.
“Meet the Crew” follows the same format but also identifies some of the cast and crew that worked on the movie.
There are two extended scenes that include the very funny instructional video about listening that only played partially in the movie and more footage of the famous bar in Memphis that Drew visits with the owner who gets to speak and tells all sorts of wonderful anecdotes about the famous people who patronized it.
There is also a “Photo Gallery” with behind-the-scenes snapshots, individual characters and certain scenes.
Finally, there are two trailers for the movie.