My favorite movie of Cameron Crowe's is Almost Famous. Period, bar none, end of discussion. I guess the reason behind that, other than the note-perfect soundtrack which was a character of its own, was because it felt real, honest, and spoke from the heart about remembering days long passed. Oddly enough, I think he went for the same thing with Elizabethtown and completely missed the mark.
Before I get into what I thought went wrong, let me start by saying the first 20 minutes are so hilariously spot on perfect that there was no way I could keep quiet. Drew Baylor (grimly played by Orlando Bloom) is an engineer at a shoe company who's first solo project has just gone up in flames. Actually, that's putting it kindly. Imagine a nuke going off and that would be more accurate.
Drew walks in knowing full well that his shoe (called the Spasmodica) tanked the company, but he puts his game face on even when taken to see the boss, Phil. Phil is described prior to Baylor actually seeing him and the visuals combined with Bloom's narration had me in hysterics. That was amplified when Phil actually speaks because Alec Baldwin absolutely kills in his five minute role. The way he takes Drew through their facilities talking to him about cutting this program or that program truly nails what it feels like to fail absolutely at anything and Baldwin is brilliant. He's making a career out of appearing briefly only to walk away with the entire show.
Once Drew gets home he plots to kill himself. Being an engineer he can't just take a knife to his wrists though and the contraction he comes up with, that also fails, is truly funny. It's at that point he gets the call that changes the rest of the movie: His dad Mitch died while visiting family in Elizabethtown and his mom and sister want him to go there and retrieve the body. Up to this point, Crowe has me completely interested in Drew's issues but once he hops on that plane we're introduced to the make-or-break character of the entire film: Claire.
As played by Kirsten Dunst, Claire is just as transitory in nature as her job as a flight attendant is. But every time she speaks it feels like Crowe was going for another Penny Lane-type free spirit and here he goes overboard. Personally, I like the heck out of Dunst as an actor but here it feels like she's really trying way, way too hard. I couldn't figure out whether Claire is desperate to connect to someone or desperate to keep everyone at arm's length, and its this contradictory nature that wound up pissing me off about her character.
Once Drew reaches Elizabethtown, Crowe knocks another homerun by absolutely nailing the South and how the large families interact. I have well over 100 cousins and relatives the majority of whom I've met only once or twice in my life. But when those people get together then everyone no matter how remote is treated like immediate family and it was a hoot watching Drew navigate through a sea of people he barely remembers from his childhood.
But then the film periodically crashes and burns by jumping back to Drew's homestead where his mother (Susan Sarandon) is channeling her grief into learning new skills. Every single time we go back there the film comes to a dead stop. But then Drew and Claire talk on the phone all night and the movie gets back on track, right down to introducing a random couple called Chuck & Cindy who are staying in the same hotel as Drew and are getting married in a few days. Guffaws aplenty follow Chuck & Cindy whenever they show up, so the film adds another charm to it.
By the end though, Elizabethtown just kind of wanders around looking to find its way which would be a better metaphor for what Drew feels if it actually, you know, found something. The final road trip sequence is wonderful by itself but feels like it belongs in another movie. Elizabethtown I had high hopes for, and to be fair I enjoyed watching it while sitting with My Fair Lady primarily because she was emotionally freaking out whenever someone on screen talked about Mitch dying and I'd laugh, or give voice to Mitch.
But I'm warped that way.