Mourning Breaks Forth to Laughter in "Elizabethtown"
- Thursday, October 13, 2005
Release Date: October 14, 2005
Rating: PG-13 (language and some sexual references)
Run Time: 123 min.
Director: Cameron Crowe
Actors: Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, Jessica Biel, Loudon Wainwright III, Paul Schneider
Writer/director Cameron Crowe, creator of classic films from the 1980s ("Fast Times at Ridgemont High", "Say Anything") and 1990s ("Jerry Maguire"), has yet to reach that level in the new millennium, and his latest effort, "Elizabethtown," doesn’t change that. However, the film’s light but satisfying meditation on despair, failure, and family ties proves to be an enjoyable two hours.
Orlando Bloom plays Drew Baylor, a doomed shoe developer who, after eight years of day-and-night of work on a new shoe design, has watched the public flatly reject the fruits of his labor. The costs to his company – nearly $1 billion – mean an end to Drew’s career, not to mention his company’s “global watchdog project,” a brief but witty reference to the company’s stab at social responsibility. (“We could’ve saved the planet,” Drew’s boss reluctantly informs him, as a gaggle of soon to be ex-employees monitors a wall of video monitors displaying images of small animals and rainforests.)
Despondent, Drew rigs an exercise machine to help him carry out a particularly grisly form of suicide, but a phone call interrupts him. His sister informs him that his father, while visiting his hometown of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, has died. Drew must retrieve his body and return it to the West Coast, where the family now resides. “You have to handle this,” his sister instructs him. “You’re the responsible one.”
During the plane trip to Kentucky, a vivacious flight attendant named Claire (Kirsten Dunst) befriends the withdrawn and uncommunicative Drew. Her pursuit – irritating if not downright disturbing – is just what Drew needs, although Drew is much slower than Claire to understand this.
The romance, while central to the story, does not solely define the film, which intersperses scenes of Drew reconnecting with his Southern relatives. The culture clash is evident, but rarely insulting, with Crowe content to depict the outward warmth of Drew’s extended family in contrast to Drew’s internalized trauma and manic mother and sister. Drew’s welling regret over his lack of missed opportunities with his father infuses the film’s “deep, beautiful melancholy” – Claire’s description of life’s ups and downs, which also captures the film’s sad but hopeful tone.
Drew’s regret about losing touch with his father is underdeveloped, but still adds poignancy to the film without becoming maudlin. The same can be said for Crowe’s take on the importance of fatherhood. When one character’s heartfelt instructions in the art of parenting go unheeded, Crowe throws in an unconventional teaching tool that speaks more loudly – and effectively – than the well-intentioned guidance of an older generation.
While "Elizabethtown" has its share of laughs, it also has a few major disappointments. The attraction between the two characters is refreshingly held at bay until late in the film, but once the two characters kiss, they quickly end up in bed together. Also, the subjects of God and eternal destiny – obvious themes for a film suffused with death and mortality – are hardly broached. These are no small failures.
Still, a film that dwells on the importance of parental influence and suggests that worldly pursuits can be empty has something to say, especially to a generation that has inherited an ethic of materialism and career “fulfillment” that can leave us empty and take our eyes off more worthy pursuits, both spiritual and personal. "Elizabethtown" could have used much more of the spiritual, but its good-natured look at characters coping with grief and loss results in enough laughter and memorable moments to compensate for its narrative shortcomings.
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