If director Cameron Crowe were a rock star, Elizabethtown, his new whateveryoucallit starring Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst, would be his sprawling, unappreciated concept album that fires off in a zillion directions and divides his fans and, decades later, finds its audience.
It's a reminder that a movie can be a complete mess and still envelop us, even nurture us, in a cozy, warm singular eccentricity.
But you need to be open to it.
For example, after Bloom tries to kill himself with a combination of an expensive exercise bike and a well-placed steak knife - but before Dunst gives him a AAA-packet worth of maps, restaurant tips, suggestions of backroads, and compilation CDs - there is a scene at a funeral. Bloom plays Drew, and he's lived in Oregon for years, working for a giant Nike-like shoemaker, but returns to Kentucky for his father's burial. He meets Dunst, who plays a flight attendant, on the cross-country trip. They fall in love and attend the funeral, which goes something like this:
The entire town of Elizabethtown turns out and bellows and acts like a nutty small town and meaningful songs play and people make pronouncements and Susan Sarandon (as Drew's mom) tells a few jokes, gives a speech, tap dances for about five minutes, twirls a lot, and then a band plays "Free Bird" (I am totally serious) and a giant papier-mache phoenix catches fire and sets off the sprinkler systems in the American Legion Hall, which drenches the mourners, who are already running in fear of the giant papier-mache bird on fire that is strafing them and Bloom and Dunst, and then the band kicks into the long guitar denouement of "Free Bird," and Drew, as bewildered as we are, is told, "Your loss will be met with a hurricane of love!"
And yet - Oh! Dear!
Crowe would probably love that Elizabethtown-concept album analogy; and he'd certainly understand it. He's a music guy, a former Rolling Stone staffer and current husband of Nancy Wilson from Heart, and if music guys know anything, it's that one of the guilty pleasures in life is pigeonholing and categorizing, comparing it to something else, giving it a letter grade, and asking your friends questions like, "If you were on a desert island and you could only bring along five records from the past five years, what records would you bring?"
As Lou Reed once said: Work on an album for two years, pour your heart into it, some jerk from the Village Voice will give it a C.
I give Elizabethtown a B+, or four stars, but mainly for its cheerful randomness and the big smile it plastered on my face (for a million reasons). But if I were on a desert island and could only bring three Cameron Crowe movies, I'd ditch it for, in this order, Almost Famous (his double-album masterpiece, a semiautobiographical drama about his days as a teenage Rolling Stone contributor); Say Anything (his modest cycle of love songs, starring John Cusack in a career-defining role); and Jerry Maguire (his Thriller, a blockbuster that spun off a slew of pop classics like "Show Me the Money" and "You Complete Me").
He has a couple of others: as screenwriter of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he had his underground cult favorite that hinted at directions to come, and with Vanilla Sky, with Tom Cruise, he had one genuine bomb, an ambitious freak show.
How does Elizabethtown fit?
In short, a wildly self-indulgent mess that throws out a handful of brilliant notes, power chords, and melodies, Elizabethtown is like none of the above and indisputably Crowelike.
His talent for sunny, smart dialogue, and accessible and idiosyncratic self-help plots, and his passion for rock and the misty-eyed romantic comedies of masters like Billy Wilder - all there, but here is a talented man who is losing the rein on what his talents are.
It begins with Bloom's Drew luxuriating in his job as a superstar sneaker designer - do such people exist? Then his boss (Alec Baldwin, with a talent for making you sit up straight in your seat) fires Drew over the minor matter of a disastrous shoe he designed.
It lost the company $1 billion and threatens, Baldwin says, "to cause an entire generation to return to bare feet." It also, as Cruise learns in Jerry Maguire, is a failure that leads to our hero discovering who he truly is, or something or other - all the while finding the love of a girlfriend who redeems him and has, heavens to Betsy, the very same CD collection as Crowe.
There is, I suppose, more to the plot, but a Crowe movie always feels to me more interesting as a sincere series of moods. Those songs he packs on, wall to wall - here, Elton John, Tom Petty, My Morning Jacket - are insistent but so thoughtfully chosen that his movies, and especially this one, have the feel of a mix tape someone slipped you for a long drive. If there's a single identifiable problem with Elizabethtown it's this: that he's tried for the first time to write a film around songs - not characters.
If you loaded scenes into an iPod and hit shuffle I'm not sure they'd play any better or worse.
If this is disastrous for anyone, it's Bloom, whose personality is so ill-defined and passive it's hard to understand what Dunst's vivacious Claire sees in him. (His British accent, never far off, makes his American accent sound like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., auditioning for TRL.) And Dunst, for her part, is handed dialogue no organism could make believable.
What shines in a picture so scattershot, of course, is everything on the fringes, like the supporting cast, especially Judy Greer as Drew's sister, and Paula Deen (yes, the cooking-show diva) as Drew's hospitable aunt.
What I think we have here is a film where, no matter how unfocused and annoying it feels, the digressions are the point. Drew constantly looks for quicker paths, literally. He loses his way.
He meets funny people. One is Claire, and you want the time before they kiss to last longer than the actual thing. Which is telling: Elizabethtown is a movie about grieving and discovering yourself and you feel none of it and very little works but that yearning. Early on, Drew is told "There's is a difference between a failure and a fiasco." Elizabethtown is a fiasco; the difference, I think, is a failure is depressing.