Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 25 September 2005
Source Paramount Pictures 35mm print
If you’ve ever watched Cameron Crowe’s essentially autobiographical Almost Famous, or its extended version Untitled, you would quickly realize that one member within Crowe’s alter-family is conspicuously absent. Though Crowe takes the greatest care to emphasize the influence that his female family members have upon his adolescence, even dedicating an entire subplot to their reunion, he never explores how his relationship with his father may have shaped him into the man he is now. While he enthusiastically catalogues how his mother’s strict yet unconventional nurturing infused him with an appreciation for literature and knowledge, and how his sister’s rebellious antics and thirst for independence served as catalyst for his adoration of rock ’n roll, not a single frame is dedicated to his father. In fact, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume Crowe never knew the man while growing up.
Though Crowe is delicate and understanding when creating his characters, fathers don’t fair very well in most of Crowe’s films. Diane’s father in Say Anything is so fiercely protective of his daughter and her potential that he is sadly suspicious of Lloyd’s gentle adoration of Diane. Unable to properly perceive his child’s maturity due to his jealous fear that he may be rendered obsolete in the next chapter of her life, Mr. Court is reduced to swindling scoundrel by the end of the film. Meanwhile, though it may also be influenced by Tom Cruise’s personal history, the fathers in Jerry Maguire and Vanilla Sky are either completely absent or long deceased, replaced by unrelated male mentors that provide guidance and comfort. Actually, the father in Vanilla Sky is downright domineering even from the grave, serving as a presence that constantly demoralizes David by casting a long daunting shadow. Since Crowe often adapts significant portions of his personal history into his films, it seems that Crowe has attempted to deliberately avoid the paternal aspect of his own story. It appears that with his latest effort, Elizabethtown, Crowe is attempting to rectify his past omissions, but unfortunately the film becomes diverted by familiar detours into Crowe’s own innocent addictions.
Screened at the Toronto Film Festival as a work in progress, Elizabethtown exemplifies everything that is wonderful, and a great deal of what remains frustrating, about Crowe’s films. Understandably it also shows the blemishes of a work in progress. Thankfully, after the manufactured conceit of Vanilla Sky (a cover that constantly showed its scars while being remade), Elizabethtown marks Crowe’s return to the material and tone he is more intrinsically suited towards. Nonetheless, Elizabethtown falls victim to contrast when placed at acclaimed international film festivals. Amongst the work of so many other skillful craftsmen, many of whom have mastered the medium to some degree, Crowe’s weaknesses as a filmmaker, and hence the flaws within his film, become more prominent. Quite obviously, Crowe’s has an innate gift with words and music that surpasses his emerging abilities with composition and movement. It feels inappropriate to label such an affable film as bloated, but in its current form at roughly 135 minutes, the film probably runs fifteen to twenty minutes longer than needed. It’s a dramatically different predicament than his last auto-biopic, where the extra material that was once excavated from Almost Famous helped fill in the gaps and flush out the motivations of his characters once restored in Untitled. Luckily, Crowe made it clear that he is still editing this festival-cut down to a more focused version for general release in October.
Orchestrated around the funeral of a patriarch transpiring in the Kentucky hometown where he was revered and adored, Elizabethtown actually begins its American road-trip in Niketown, Oregon focused on the son that has separated himself from his family. Drew Baylor is a talented designer who has devoted years of his life to developing a single distinctive athletic shoe that he is convinced will not only be functional, but somehow also be inspirational. The monstrous result is a commercial failure even before its launch, fated to cost Drew’s employer – a barely veiled skewering of Nike – a sizeable fortune. At this point I wondered if the Drew’s shoe wasn’t a substitute for Vanilla Sky. Drew’s design is not merely a financial fiasco with wide-ranging reverberations, but it seems destined to morph into a mythical corporate cautionary tale about catastrophes perpetuated by the unhealthy faith in creativity and harmful emphasis on originality. Now disgraced, Drew is summoned to meet with Phil, the chief of the sneaker giant who also serves as spiritual guru to his devoted recruits. Played by Alec Baldwin in a peculiarly humorous method, Phil turns out to be an amusing teasing of Nike shoe mogul Phil Knight. Passively intimidating, Phil isn’t so much incensed with Drew efforts as he is disenchanted by the entire ordeal. He even calmly notes that the planned profits of Drew’s shoe could have helped save the world. Drew isn’t just sacked, but convinced he should suffer the indignity of falling on the publicity grenade.
Coming to grips with both the enormity of his humiliating failure and the disastrous career that he has sacrificed his family and friends for, Drew considers taking some rather dark measures before receiving news that his father, Mitch, has passed away. At the request of his manic mother, Kitty, and distraught sister, Heather, Drew packs his bags for Elizabethtown, Kentucky — the childhood home his father was visiting — so that he can make arrangements to bring his father back to Oregon for a proper burial. On the empty late-night flight across country, Drew is besieged by an overly attentive, slightly eccentric, exceedingly verbose flight attendant named Claire, who chatters incessantly about highway directions and her study of how names affect personality. Though he’s initially annoyed by Claire’s antics, Drew has unknowingly made a vital connection that helps him steer through the rough roads ahead.
A recurring topic at the TIFF, especially among several prominent English-language films, was the examination of small-town American communities. Whether Mid-Western or Bluegrass, it seems Hollywood directors are becoming increasingly intrigued with the existing attitudes of communities far removed from metropolitan mentalities. The results are projects developed to explore the perspectives that subsist within these regions. While one imagines many of these projects to simply take a condescending view and use a caustic presentation, Crowe’s efforts are expectedly more cordial and diplomatic towards these folk, possibly because they represent his relatives. Though easily more gracious than its counterparts, due in part to its Southern setting, Elizabethtown glaringly displays the elementary, somewhat stereotypical, disparity between the Blue and Red states. Crowe’s country-folk are never portrayed as bumpkins, but they aren’t exactly complex.
Once Drew arrives in Elizabethtown he is warmly greeted by a deluge of hospitable citizens and relatives. The town itself is old-fashioned, but somewhat charmed, with townspeople guiding Drew from the outskirts into the heart of town. Unfortunately, for both Drew and the viewer, the sheer surge of colorful characters and boisterous goodwill certainly becomes exhausting and soon boarders on irksome. Clearly, there remains an underlying tension based on values that the residents resist indulging. Nowhere is this opposition more evident than the dispute over whether to respect the Baylor family’s wishes and permit a cremation, and thereby disregard the traditional funeral the town is clamoring for. However well-intentioned Drew’s Southern relatives are, their pleasant demeanor hides their bitterness at having witnessed their native son willingly depart his hometown. The collective resentment of liberal attitudes manifests itself in their constant mention of Drew’s connection to California, even though his family has long since relocated to Oregon. Considering the way the Golden State often serves as a target for the Right, representing everything that they hold in contempt, it certainly appears that these folks don’t want to acknowledge any other state exists on the west coast.
Nevertheless, Crowe does make an effort to this illustrate that this myopic view of the Left is generational instead of merely geographical. While weathering the opinionated storm of relatives, Drew does find shelter in two peers. The first is his cousin Jesse, who prepares Drew for the “hurricane of love” that welcomes him to town. Jesse offers Drew some refuge, but more importantly they relate to one another based upon their mutual inability to connect with their fathers. The generational conflict is particularly apparent in this case due to the rambunctious nature of Jesse’s son, who has been raised in a lenient manner in deliberate contrast Jesse’s childhood. Unable to grasp his son’s lax ineffective parenting methods, Jesse’s father, Dale, bluntly preaches to Jesse about the success of discipline. Oddly, this sub-plot is resolved with a disturbing sequence where television substitutes for parental attention. The other source of comfort for Drew is Claire, who possesses a distinct wisdom of the culture that surrounds Drew. Though Claire is clearly a southern girl, her extensive travels have allowed her to escape the insular perspectives of the older generation. Of course, since this is a Cameron Crowe film, the common trait of both Jesse and Claire is obviously music. Jesse’s softly defiant personality is linked to his enthusiasm for rock ’n roll, which manifests itself in his Lynyrd Synyrd cover band. Meanwhile, Claire’s passion displays itself when she creates a music mix-tape map for Drew. In Crowe’s world, music isn’t just entertainment or distraction, but a means of discovery and expression, which in contrast to the provincial community, allows an understanding of someone else’s world.
Like all Cameron Crowe films, Elizabethtown is filled with music. Indeed, some the enjoyment in a Crowe film is finding out which songs he’s chosen. Sometimes they are favorites and quite often they are unexpected inclusions. Admittedly, I probably awarded Elizabethtown a few points for including The Concretes “You Can’t Hurry Love” and Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” (not to mention Rolling Rock beer). At the very least the film answers why Crowe includes Lynyrd Skynyrd songs on his soundtracks. However, in its current form, Elizabethtown also suffers from having its constant stream of music become a bit overwhelming. Though the song selection feels appropriate for the most part and never drowns out the actions on screen, there are instances where the decisions feel obvious. Perhaps more concerning is that there are moments in which the accompanying music feels unnecessary. For all the praise heaped upon Crowe for his ability to meld music with visuals, few question whether his combinations are always needed. When compared to recent efforts from directors such as Hou, Tsai, or Wong, who pick specific recurring pop melodies to create a sublime atmosphere, but also allow for scenes to speak for themselves, Crowe’s Americana mix begins to feel rather brash at times. Forever inundated with vintage rock, it sometimes seems as though Crowe should just allow his scene to breath. It’s not even a question of cultures, considering Crowe’s compatriot Jim Jarmusch has found a way to gracefully weave together some fine American tunes into his version of a paternally-concerned American road-trip, but also allows his audience to reflect on his characters circumstances. Hence, Elizabethtown often feels like it could observe a genuine moment of silence, not only out of respect, but also as relief.
Since they essentially function as his own cinematic mix-tapes, the rhythms of Crowe’s films emulate sprawling rock songs. His films have a basic structure, but often tend to ramble during subplots and character solos, with hectic conclusions. It’s typically fantastic to watch, but in retrospect his films are sort of a disguised jumble. Viewers usually remember specific scenes within Crowe movies because they are performed flawlessly, but when viewed as a whole his narratives lack complete focus. It’s in this aspect that his influences conflict with each other.
Crowe’s films are regularly compared to the work of Ernest Lubitsch (Ninotchka is a Crowe favorite), Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder. Wilder’s name is continually evoked because he served as Crowe’s mentor, Crowe has published his Conversations with Wilder, and Crowe credited Wilder to be “the master” during his Oscar acceptance speech. However, there are inherent differences between Crowe’s work and the films conducted by these maestros. Firstly, both Wilder and Sturges had a visible darker element within their films that Crowe seemingly shies away from. There is hardly ever a true sense of menace in Crowe’s movies. Other than Bob Sugar, every rival always remains respectful and even if Vanilla Sky is Crowe’s Double Indemnity, the sense of danger is defused because of the surrounding dream-life. More importantly, though Crowe’s films retain the same whimsical tone as the films of his predecessors, he does not share the same sense of cadence and narrative structure as these filmmakers. While a Lubitsch comedy is tight and efficient throughout, a Crowe film swerves and strays briefly, arriving at a destination in a surprising manner. This tendency probably has more to do with Crowe’s appreciation for Truffaut, Fellini, and obviously rock ’n roll. These techniques have served Crowe well in the past, but Elizabethtown shows visible signs of stress.
Elizabethtown sputters and stalls not so much because of its material, but mostly because of its execution. The most glaringly weakness of the film is its editing, where it seems Crowe’s timing is slightly off. Certain conversations are stretched just a touch too long, while shots that could be extended are broken by inserts of reactions and distractions. It’s a flaw most evident during Kitty’s tribute to Mitch. Instead of focusing on Susan Sarandon’s talent and intently watching her performance, the scene is chopped up by ridiculously synthetic reactions shots from her audience. If Crowe is trying to convey Kitty’s ability to dazzle her hostile audience, then why not just simply allow Sarandon to captivate the film’s audience by delivering Crowe’s lines and allowing us to laugh along. There is also a strange insert of an energetic child during a comedic moment between relatives where a hold on the uncomfortable silence may have worked much better.
Some of Crowe’s problems are due to casting. I’m sure when you start off casting Ashton Kutcher as your lead, anyone seems better in comparison. So I can’t fault Crowe for thinking Orlando Bloom was a capable replacement. Bloom does just fine when he needs to convey Crowe’s characteristic naïveté and insecurity, but he’s never been the most masculine presence. Regrettably, Bloom just never feels completely natural in his more demanding scenes, particularly with his artificial performance in the car with the urn that contains his father’s ashes. Bloom fairs much better when playing opposite Dunst, as the couple conveys a nice sense of newfound intimacy when together. More impressive are Judy Greer, replacing Zooey Deschanel as Crowe’s sweet sister, and Paul Schneider as Drew’s relaxed Cousin Jessie. Both actors make the most of their limited time on screen. Greer’s comic abilities are always evident, but here she’s splendid at portraying someone trying to calm a frenzied grief-stricken parent while she herself is unraveling.
For all its endearing charms, Elizabethtown arrives at its final destination in rough shape via some sappy shortcuts. Crowe’s film is concerned with how one overcomes enduring perceptions of failure, affirming that success defined in fame and fortune is a shallow goal and that connections with family, friends, and our community are more worthy pursuits. Surely this is the distinction between father and son that has lead to their disconnection. Mitch Baylor was the George Bailey of Elizabethtown, while Drew has been striving for targets sponsored by Nike. Unfortunately, though Crowe insists that his film attempts to deal with the collective American obsession with success and fear of failure, Drew never truly embraces his debacle. Instead, we are subjected to a ludicrous resolution involving the accidental success of his recalled shoe design that allows Drew the solace of being an underappreciated artist whose work is finally validated. It’s an unnecessary shortcut that weakens Crowe’s central point, since Drew has already embraced the disaster of Mitch’s memorial, which isn’t exactly a success, but sure is sensational. Meanwhile, the distance between son and father is simply mended instead of investigated. Drew’s efforts to bond with his father’s hometown are admirable as an act of compensation, but it only gives a hollow sense of the man who remained detached from Drew. If establishing these links to family is so important, then why does Drew seem so eager to dash out of town?
Elizabethtown becomes comfortable once it hits the road on the romantic Great American Road-Trip, with Drew finally paying respect to his father by spreading his ashes across America, encouraged by Claire’s impossible creativity. During this lengthy sequence, as Drew travels across America from his father’s hometown back to his own home, Crowe pays his respect to America as well, with pit stops in Memphis, Eureka Springs, Oklahoma City, and Scottsbluff. As Drew, a bright kid who started out isolated in Oregon and lost in American corporate fantasies, now journeys through a heartland that is divided in reality due to a difference in values, there is a sense that Crowe’s movie is attempting to unite America once more. It’s in this celebration of connection and the overlooked concrete links to one another that Elizabethtown finally discovers what it wants to accomplish. It’s a noble venture, but one that is diluted and delayed by what preceded Drew’s soul-searching travels. In a film that wants so dearly to be so many different things at once, it’s only in its final venture that it achieves what it initially set out to accomplish. The wait just feels a little long.