Golden Sombrero: The descent into decent – Cameron Crowe and Elizabethtown (**1/2)

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Elizabethtown – 2005

Written and Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, Bruce McGill, Judy Greer, Jessica Biel, Paul Schneider, Loudon Wainright III, Jed Rees, Paula Deen, Dan Biggers, Alice Marie Crowe

When one measures the movies we remember in life, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and even Almost Famous would make an appearance in many people’s lists. It’s no accident that each of these films have the same kind, sympathetic voice. Cameron Crowe has filled a niche for the common, nice guy white American. There is nothing nefarious to his approach. It’s basically life, one slice at a time, filled with learning moments for his ever slowly evolving protagonist. That his films are filled with one note characters largely didn’t matter. Those notes ring like a clarion bell for uniqueness. The soundtrack always presented an excellent barometer for the middling feelings of the films. It’s hard to deny the power of Peter Gabriel coming through the boombox of a heartsick John Cusack.

The post 2000 era has not been a great one for Crowe. He’s had one real success since starting out with Almost Famous, and that’s riding Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson to success in We Bought A Zoo. I even enjoyed that film as a fine example of harmless optimism in the face of loss.

Watching Elizabethtown for the second time clarified that film as more of a happy accident, though. The first time I saw it in 2005, I had no real memories of it. I had this hazy feeling of comfort in the face of adversity. When the world got hard, our youngish protagonist takes a red-eye back to the place where his long forgotten family resides. It was pretty scenic, too…wasn’t it?

In the years between, my wife decided for myriad reasons when we retire, we’re going to Elizabethtown. That movie in my mind, I couldn’t disagree. There is nothing but bland pleasantness of my memory to sustain me.

Then I saw the film on sale, bought it and turned it on for my wife and I to watch.

“That sound you hear, is the sound of shit hitting the fan. Globally.”

By the time Drew (Bloom) hears this, the film already seemed very familiar to me. An urgent forbidding failure of cinematic proportions occurs all do to his flawed design. A tennis shoe designed in the shape of a manta ray to make one feel like they were floating on clouds. Let’s just call it the Opti-Grab, instead of the SPASMOTICA. Something tells me something with the SPAZ surname might not be a success.

One billion dollars, or $972 million if one doesn’t round-up, is the amount that the shoe has cost his company, run by a guy named “Phil” (Baldwin), who owns a basketball team and planet saving wing of the company that don’t know they’re going to be shut down, invariably. How is it that one becomes the sole person responsible for a disastrous shoe launch in a company filled with people in business suits? They can’t, of course. Crow needs to get on with the story, though. There is no time to logic this out.

“This loss will be met by a hurricane of love.”

When Drew recoils from the loss experienced in his professional life, he decides to kill himself in a dramatic way. This is unsettling for the viewer in a romantic comedy. I have never been a person who contemplated this way out, but I am pretty sure I wouldn’t do it this way.  The inevitable is prevented by the fact that we’re still in the first act of the film. His sister Heather (Greer) calls to inform him that his father has died and that being the responsible one, he was going to have to go Elizabethtown, Kentucky to bring him back to Oregon.

Heading to Elizabethtown, of course things were going to work out. He meets Claire (Dunst), who literally hangs onto him as though she were still auditioning. The situations Drew encounters sometimes ring partially true, though many of the moments come across like they were notes taken on a piece of scrap paper that were gathered for potential use later. Disconnected thoughts that Crowe thinks he can weave into some sort of truth tapestry.

Other aspects of the film seem indulgent in the opposite way. I am sure that Crowe has gone through that phone call that didn’t end, and perhaps resulted in a trip to meet the person on the other end. It’s no surprise his father is from Kentucky, either. There have been an endless amount of mix tapes and even a few trips to find the meaning of life, as well. The result is a bunch of nice peripheral characters who spout memorable, disconnected one liners then wander off. If it all seems forced, it’s at least polite.

This film is not nearly as bad as many have made it out to be. Yes, Crowe had worked himself into a comfortable zone by this point. It’s pretty obvious that his success had been a form of shelter for him. Spending two decades as a critical darling is not without its effects.

“We peaked on the phone.”

There is a hysterical sweetness to all of these non-sequiturs. It doesn’t completely hold together, but it never falls apart.

Mitch is not exactly what one would picture as the typical descendent of Kentucky. He will always look a little like an elf to me. He is earnest, though. He takes all of the goofy energy that Dunst puts forth and he absorbs it willingly. He’s even got the nod for listening to the endless parade of folksy talk coming from his Kentucky family he’d never met.

The film is a lot like the overused joke about Drew’s wing of the family being from California. We hear over and over again the Kentucky Baylor’s say this over and over again. Then, one time, during a dramatically tense moment, Drew mistakenly says it himself. Everyone laughs and the tension is released, but it’s not exactly Tiny Dancer.

If anything, we see in this film a bunch of things similar to what has worked for Crowe in the past that just don’t work now. Hitting the same beat over and over again has resulted in something less. It’s not his worst work, like many want to declare. It’s just not really good.

That said, several tropes, overused as they are, still have some resonance. The town knowing Mitch before he knew them is touching. As is the house full of people each bringing their own dish. There is a nuance to Dunst, realizing her position is hopeless as she pushes herself as a force of hope in Drew’s life. The road trip, spelled out to the minute to the degree that no personal assistant devoting 100% of their time to could create. It’s fun and it is moving.

There’s some bad acting, led more by writing than anything. Sarandon looks ridiculous throughout. Biel is a note for note copy of Kelly Preston. Alec Baldwin acts like he’s searching for the lines that he left behind with David Mamet. The little terror of a kid is asked to do things that might have been cute as a one off in a film. Not several times.

Crowe’s big move is that we’ve all got unrequited feelings throughout life. There’s always another road trip our soul needs to take. Then when we do, we can’t forget where we come from. Let’s take a road trip there too. Then let’s also remember we need love in our life, etc.

My point is, even if the results are not always great and sometimes the moments are altogether too forced, there are worse things to make movies about. Paul McCartney hasn’t written an effective love song in years. I am still grateful that’s the thing he keeps trying to do. Who knows, maybe he’ll hit all the right notes for five more minutes one more time in his life. Maybe not. I can’t begrudge the effort.

“So you failed…alright, you really failed.”

The film doesn’t fail big. It only does so politely.

And we still want to move to Elizabethtown.

(**1/2 out of *****)

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