After a reportedly disastrous screening at the Toronto Film Festival in September, Cameron Crowe trimmed some 18 minutes from his latest project, Elizabethtown, before its national release on October 14. Of course, I never saw Crowe's Toronto cut, so I can't venture a guess as to what scenes wound up getting the boot. But having seen the finished project, I'm thinking that the loss of those 18 minutes was in no way satisfactory - to be honest, I'm not sure which scenes Crowe should have left in. For Elizabethtown is, in almost every respect, shockingly weak, so tonally incorrect and irrationally pleased with itself that it left me a little dazed. How could Crowe, who has made such wonderfully humane, marvelously detailed comedies, have gone so far afield?
Elizabethtown isn't just a bad Cameron Crowe movie; it could nearly be mistaken for a parody of a Cameron Crowe movie. We are first introduced, Jerry Maguire-style, to young shoe designer Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), whose latest, six-years-in-the-making product - a disastrous attempt to reinvent the sneaker - is about to cost his Nike-esque empire $972 million. Drew makes plans to kill himself, but is thwarted in this quest by the unexpected news of his father's death. With his mother (Susan Sarandon) and sister (Judy Greer) grieving in Oregon, Drew flies to Kentucky to retrieve his dad's body, and while on the plane, he meets the loquacious flight attendant Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who bears more than a passing resemblance to Kate Hudson's Penny Lane in Almost Famous. As Drew connects with his father's side of the family and finds himself increasingly bewitched by the eccentric Claire, he learns to let go of the past and embrace the present, and Elizabethtown becomes a celebration of life, in all its messy, unpredictable splendor.
In theory. Yet from the very first scenes, nothing in Elizabethtown feels remotely lifelike. The opening, with Drew facing his shattering failure, is presented with broad cartoon strokes, and our hero's convoluted means of killing himself - involving Drew's exercise bike and a really sharp knife - is so slapsticky that it's impossible to take seriously. You'd think the passing of Drew's father would, perhaps, send the film in a more realistic direction, especially considering the interviews Crowe has given about how Elizabethtown was shaped as a love letter to the writer/director's own, deceased father. Yet Crowe treats the death, and everyone's reactions to it, as a sitcom joke - there's even some farce involving the casket's shaky desecent into the ground - while he pumps the soundtrack full of mellow, '70s-era pop tunes to turn audiences into jelly. Crowe wants his laughs and his tears, as usual, but the laughs here are obvious, fish-out-of-water ones, and since we're deprived of any emotional investment with the characters, the tears never come.
There's practically no end to the movie's bum scenes. Drew and Claire's first "romantic" encounter takes place while the pair are on opposite ends of an endless cell-phone conversation, and the dialogue is so superficially cutesy, and so chockfull of Crowe's fit-for-a-bumper-sticker homilies ("Men see things in a box, women see them in a round room.") that the pair's bond doesn't ring the slightest bit true. (If we've learned anything from movies, it's that cell phone batteries always die at the most inopportune moments. Couldn't that have happened here?) A sequence of Drew rushing to stop his father's cremation appears to come out of the blue, and nearly every scene involving his extended family in Kentucky is cheap; Crowe wants us to laugh at the silly rituals of the simple folk from the sticks, but then tells us that these simple folk from the sticks have a closer connection to life - have deeper values - than the rest of us. All throughout Elizabethtown, Crowe invites you to chuckle and then reprimands you if you actually do.
But the bad scenes are easy enough to forget. It's the spectacularly bad ones you can't shake. Late in the film, we're given what might be the most ridiculously ill-conceived sequence in any movie this year, when Sarandon, at her husband's funeral, launches into a bizarrely unfunny standup routine with an accompanying tap dance, which is quickly followed by the funeral's reception room bursting into flames while Drew's cousin and his band play "Free Bird." (I swear to you: I did not make up any of that.) And after you've picked your jaw up off the floor following that sequence, Crowe sends Drew on a climactic, cross-country road trip, where he follows the directions on a homemade map - designed by Claire, we are asked to believe, in less than a day - that would take a dozen cartographers a year to produce. The montage itself is ridiculous, and the offense is agitated by the succession of tunes played during it, where Crowe seems to fill the 10-minute block of screen time with every song he's ever heard. I spent much of the movie staring in disbelief, but it was Crowe's mishandling of the music that was really astonishing. Elizabethtown is a Cameron Crowe movie where you can't even get pumped about the soundtrack. Is nothing sacred?
If, like me, you consider yourself a Kirsten Dunst fan, you are advised to stay as far away from Elizabethtown as possible. Claire's perkiness and "life force" is shoved down our throats so egregiously that you may feel like you never want to watch Dunst in anything ever again. The role doesn't allow for any of the dreamy, slightly zonked naturalism that's generally the actress's trump card; from her first scene, Claire is a pain, yet the movie seems to think she's not only adorable but downright magical. As for Bloom, he's certainly sweet, and God knows it's nice seeing him out of period attire for a change. But his role has no dimensions, and Bloom doesn't give Drew any interior life - basically, he looks puzzled, yet we're never quite sure what he's puzzled about. Maybe, like some of us in the audience, he's trying to figure out how all of Cameron Crowe's talents could have so completely failed him-- Elizabethtown feels like it was practically designed to make his detractors happy while making the rest of us downright miserable.
TWO FOR THE MONEY
Matthew McConaughey is a natural charmer, and he can be a first-rate comedian, but he isn't a very interesting dramatic actor; he goes through the motions well enough, but you don't believe that this hunk with the chiseled chest and soulful eyes has experienced a bummer day in his entire life. Two for the Money concerns the rise and fall of a sports wizard with a natural instinct for picking winners, and the movie's formulaic, A + B = C plotting isn't helped by the dreariness of its leading actor; when McConaughey suffers, the audience yawns. The movie is dull and unsurprising, but matters are at least helped slightly by Rene Russo, nicely focused in a sketchy role, and Al Pacino, who growls and barks and does his Al Pacino thing. God bless him.