It may well be that “Elizabethtown” is a very personal project for writer-director Cameron Crowe, with a good many autobiographical elements interspersed in its story about a young man traveling to claim his father’s body in the Kentucky town where his dad died while visiting relatives. But that doesn’t alter the fact that none of it seems remotely real–not the biting corporate opening, nor the near-screwball elements involving the girl he meets along the way, nor the whimsical home-town atmosphere after he arrives, nor the bizarrely uplifting final services. Elizabethtown may be an actual location, but “Elizabethtown” seems like nowhere on earth, because Crowe’s script is so disjointed and tone-deaf that if somebody scribbled down a jumble of disconnected dialogue and situations on index cards, tossed the cards into the air, collected them randomly and then wrote a script directly from them, the result might have the same degree of consistency and coherence.
Orlando Bloom stars as Drew Baylor, an erstwhile golden boy designer in the shoe industry whose last creation–a sneaker called Spasmotica (!)–proved such a disaster that he’s sacked by the West Coast firm’s smooth but shark-like CEO (Alex Baldwin, in a sharp cameo that’s the funniest thing in the movie–which is another way of saying it’s all downhill from him). After Drew fails miserably in a comic suicide attempt, his efforts to do away with his humiliation are interrupted by a phone call from his sister informing him that his father has died and he’s been elected to go to Elizabethtown, the Kentucky hometown where his dad, a beloved figure, expired while on vacation. Soon he’s the only passenger on a red-eye flight to Louisville where a sweetly exuberant stewardess, Claire (Kirsten Dunst), virtually adopts him. When he reaches Elizabethtown (getting lost along the way, of course), he finds himself treated by the charmingly oddball locals as a conquering hero and warmly embraced by his relatives, including his ever-cooking Aunt Dora (Paula Deen), bewildered Uncle Dale (Loudon Wainwright III) and cousin Jesse (Paul Schneider), whose whole life revolves around memories of the time he once spent in a high school rock band. (Loitering about is also a shady character named Bill Banyon, played by Bruce McGill, whose relationship to Drew’s dead father is never explained.) Drew himself hunkers down in the old-fashioned hotel that specializes in hosting wedding parties, including one in which he soon finds himself reluctantly entrapped. More important, though, Claire follows him to Elizabethtown, where the two are quickly frolicking about in a decidedly quirky romance. Things get even quirkier when Drew’s mom Hollie (Susan Sarandon) shows up for the memorial service (at which Jesse’s old band plays). Having worked off her grief by taking dancing classes and going to comedy school, Hollie delivers what amounts to a stand-up routine that concludes with an elaborate tap-dance. And just when you think everything’s over, “Elizabethtown” turns into a road movie in which Drew drives back west along a route elaborately designed for him by Claire–in the course of which he’ll not only learn about life in general but have to make some very basic decisions about his own.
You have to admire Crowe’s tackling so many issues in his movie, and trying to maintain an off-kilter, charmingly daffy style throughout. Unfortunately, he’s like a juggler who’s put too many balls into the air and can’t keep them aloft. Too many of his most audacious moves prove very poor choices–Sarandon’s big memorial-service performance is an embarrassment that should have been excised in toto, and the last-act road trip promises much more than it delivers. In addition, the construction of the picture is so ragged that important information is often lacking. (This viewer, for instance, wasn’t certain whether Drew’s mother and father were divorced or still married through the first two-thirds of the movie.) Bloom, moreover, proves a pallid leading man, too bland and passive to root for. By contrast, Dunst’s incessant perkiness soon grows wearying, particularly since it’s difficult to understand what Claire sees in Drew. By contrast Schneider and Deen offer some pleasant moments; they’re just not nearly enough to compensate. And of course there’s always Baldwin’s sleek turn to appreciate. A pity it’s over by the ten-minute point.
“Elizabethtown” is thoroughly professional to look at, with solid work from production designer Clay A. Griffith, art director Beat Frutiger and cinematographer John Toll. Best of all is the steady stream of pop songs that Crowe, with his background in music, has selected for the soundtrack. Indeed, one might think he spent more time picking out the songs than he did constructing the script. As the movie makes clear, that’s not a good thing.