by David Cornelius
If Cameron Crowe is good at doing one thing, it’s creating characters that are, at their very core, real. The writer/director’s previous works - “Say Anything…,” “Singles,” “Jerry Maguire,” and “Almost Famous,” as well as his screenplay for “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” - are all teeming with characters that feel as though they’ve just stepped out of reality. Sure, they might be prettier than we are, and they might be more clever in their dialogue, but what they do, how they react, it’s all based on a deep sense of reality. These are more than people we want to know; these are people we feel like we might actually have a chance of knowing.(You may have noticed I left out Crowe’s last film, “Vanilla Sky.” That work, which I did not like, although many others did, was a remake of a twisty thriller. It’s a genre with which Crowe does not fit, and the fact that he did not conceive the story suggests a far less personal story. Considering how this is a filmmaker best known for intimate storytelling, I view “Vanilla Sky” as an interesting and daring, if rather unsuccessful, experiment, but not one that makes the Big List of Cameron Crowe Movies. Anyway. Back to the review.)
"Don't we all want to hang out in Cameron Crowe's world for a while?"
Crowe’s latest film is “Elizabethtown,” and again, we sense the real bubbling up to meet us. The movie stars Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst, and yes, they are indeed prettier than we are, and yes, their characters are indeed more clever in their dialogue than we could ever wish of ourselves. And yet it seems like we have known them for years. Or maybe we just know people like them, and Crowe has managed to replicate those folks for us?
Bloom plays Drew Baylor, a highly successful designer for a top shoe company. His latest design has just turned out to be a massive flop, costing the company to lose just under a billion dollars. This is, of course, a bit larger than life, and obviously not something to which you or I can relate. (Unless, that is, you have recently completed a billion dollar deal with your own company.) But while Drew’s predicament is not commonplace, his reaction is. Watch how, in the earliest scenes of the film, he puts on the brave face in front of his coworkers. His mantra here is “I’m fine,” which gets repeated so often that it becomes a punchline of sorts. Say it enough and he just might believe it himself. We’ve all been there, yes?
These early scenes have a cartoonish quality to them. Alec Baldwin appears in a brief role as Drew’s insane boss; Drew decides that suicide is the way out, but it involves a death contraption so utterly bizarre that it refuses to let us take Drew’s dilemma seriously; a quick glimpse of Drew’s mother (Susan Sarandon) and sister (Judy Greer) are, despite the plot turn that just hits us, played entirely for laughs. Drew’s life on the west coast is one of broad caricature.
It’s fascinating how Crowe can find such comedy in the scene with Drew’s family, considering that this is the scene that brings everything down to earth and kicks off the emotional frenzy to follow. You see, Drew’s father just died, and the delivery of the news is quite sad. But there’s this humor here, with the hysterics and the lunacy of the Baylor women, that reveals Crowe’s expertise in balancing comedy and drama.
The main thrust of the plot is that Drew’s dad died while on vacation in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, the town where he grew up; Drew must travel there to retrieve the body and return it home. But as all homecoming stories are, this is one in which Drew will find the magic of the small town, of family and friends, of the simpler life.
The residents of Elizabethtown are no less humorous than those of Drew’s life out west, and yet by the time Drew arrives in Kentucky, the cartoonish nature of the story has worn off. Gone is the exaggeration, replaced by a more familiar feeling. This is comedy that comes from knowing people like this. (Even moments that feel exaggerated, such as the running gag involving the dopey wedding party Drew keeps crossing at his hotel, are rooted in reality. We snicker at the idea of Cindy and Chuck’s tacky wedding theme, but we also realize that we probably know someone who’d think such an idea would be brilliant.) Crowe has figured out how everyone in this town relates to everyone else, and it is a web of character interaction that creates a deep authenticity.
Combined with this sweet homecoming story is a sweeter romance, in which Drew falls for Claire (Dunst), an eccentric flight attendant. They spend the whole night talking on the phone, in what becomes the best scene in the film; we watch the outpouring of two souls becoming quick friends (and then some), and the frenzy of talk plays as a catharsis for the characters, who until then had nobody with which they could share such feelings, such ideas, such trivialities, such time.
I’m tempted to say I did not like Dunst in the role (no surprise, as it’s been a long time since we’ve seen her in a quality performance), but then I realize that it’s the character, not the actor, that’s gotten to me. In fact, it’s that Claire, as both written and presented, reminds me of people I know, flaky types all, that bugged me so much - Crowe had created someone so real that it made me think, “hey, I know her, and she’s annoying!” Which is, of course, all the more wanted in a story than some blank, instantly likable romantic comedy cliché. So yes, finally, a Dunst performance worth watching again.
(As for you Bloom fans, don’t worry. He proves himself worthy of leading man status, handling himself - and his American accent - quite well. He holds the picture together, allowing for the shifts in tone, the broad laughs and the quiet sadness, making us want to keep watching to see where this character is headed next. Here is an actor who’s earned his star status.)
The film works wonders, inviting us into this delightful little universe, relishing the little moments in Crowe’s world. But then things begin to sag in the final half hour. Drew’s family arrives in Kentucky, and while it’s always a joy to see Sarandon on screen, the film devotes a bit too much time to her character, forgetting for too long that this is Drew’s story, not hers. (I would have appreciated Sarandon’s scenes here had we been given more of her character earlier in the picture. The bigness of her moment requires more build-up than what we get.)
And then the film stumbles upon that most troubling of problems, the neverending ending. There is a moment here when the story reaches its satisfactory finish line, but Crowe, wanting to spend more time with these people, stretches things out with an epilogue that celebrates the road trip as an American institution. On its own, it’s nice to watch Drew in these scenes, but at the tail end of this movie, it doesn’t entirely fit. Here, for the first time during the movie, the audience starts in with the watch-checking.But hey, who can blame Crowe for wanting to hang out just a little bit more? By the end of the picture, Drew, like so many other Crowe characters before him, is an old friend. Even when Crowe trips with his plotlines and his pacings, at least he has a world of exciting, wonderful people to keep us wanting more.
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originally posted: 10/13/05 19:55:16