Solitary Refinement

Washington City Paper | October 14, 2005
Returning to young love and pop music after his disastrous detour into Vanilla Sky country—a trip taken at the behest of Jerry Maguire star and Elizabethtown co-producer Tom Cruise—Cameron Crowe follows his customary itinerary. His excruciatingly contrived and remarkably tasteless new rom-com introduces a man, a woman, and a soundtrack so essential that the writer-director has made it a plot device. Crowe has described the movie as “probably even more of a musical than Almost Famous” and its Southern-rock and -soul set list (“Free Bird”? Hell, yeah!) as “the movie’s inner voice, a friendly guide and a secret muse.”

That’s good to know, because the not-so-secret muse is Kirsten Dunst in her most annoying role ever: zany, garrulous, big-hearted flight attendant Claire. She enters the story when Drew (Orlando Bloom) takes a redeye flight to Kentucky, where his dad has just unexpectedly died. Claire comes on strong, but Drew can’t take his mind off another recent fatality, his job. Continuing his obsession with careers that combine sports, hype, show biz, and big bucks, Crowe put his protagonist to work at Mercury Shoe Co., a poorly resoled Nike. The Drew-designed Spasmotica has just flopped, to the tune of almost $1 billion in losses—worse than the Bee Gees/Peter Frampton Sgt. Pepper’s, to recall an event from Crowe’s rock-writer period—and flamboyant CEO Phil (Alec Baldwin, natch) has amiably let him go. So, of course, has Drew’s calculating executive-suite squeeze, Ellen (Jessica Biel). The poor guy has just arranged his Rube Goldberg–Êstyle suicide when he gets the call to go to Kentucky.

Representing his mother (Susan Sarandon) and sister, Drew is supposed to block any Old South notions of a proper burial, have his dad cremated, and return to Oregon with the ashes. But he finds that he actually likes Dad’s side of the family and is swayed by their arguments in favor of tradition. Eventually, Mom changes her mind and travels to Kentucky for the wacky memorial service, winning over the crowd with her comic monologue about adjusting to widowhood. Her appearance is a minifeature in itself, and Sarandon’s performance outshines everything else in the film. Yet Crowe foolishly second-guesses her, following her speech with the slapstick overkill of a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band, a fire, and a stampede. (A riff on firetrap-metal-club fan incinerations? Hilarious!)

Despite the time devoted to them, Drew’s lively mom and dead dad are only the excuse for introducing Mercury’s man overboard to Claire. In a switch of Crowe’s usual formula of unworthy man beseeching noble woman—which has brought us such entreaties as “You rock my world” and “You complete me”—Elizabethtown makes its female lead the romantic hunter-gatherer. Fair enough, but Crowe has supplied his heroine with dialogue that would embarrass even the lowest-grade chick flick. Claire’s babble about her ability to discern emotional truth and serve as the ideal provisional lover would drive off any sane man, let alone one who’s planning his own imminent death. Yet even as Claire denies that they can have a long-term relationship, she plots Drew’s life for him, proving that she’s his perfect mate by presenting him with an elaborate handmade atlas for back-road-tripping home to Oregon, complete with 41 hours of impeccably programmed music on burned CD-Rs. (Elton John? Hell, yeah!)

You may wonder how Claire, who flies around the country, became an expert on secondary highways, or when she had the time to assemble this massive personalized box set. (Maybe she has one for every other state, just in case she meets a guy who looks like Orlando Bloom and might want to drive home listening to “Let It All Hang Out.”) But never mind that; it’s time to meet America, a land of such quaint attractions as farmer’s markets, tatty old dinosaur theme parks, and—to the tune of U2’s “Pride”—the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Yes, Crowe really does plop the civil-rights movement into his carry-on bag as if it were just another Tom Petty T-shirt, trivializing the historic struggles of people who never had the director’s easy access to showbiz and big bucks. Everybody is a star, it’s still rock ’n’ roll to me, show me the money—Crowe no longer knows the difference between a tagline and an insight, a characterization and a consumer profile. After Elizabethtown tanks, maybe he can get a job in marketing at the Mercury Shoe Co.CP

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