Too many roads in `Elizabethtown'

MovieReview C+

October 14, 2005|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Cameron Crowe crams at least three movies' worth of plotlines into Elizabethtown, and gives short shrift to all of them. With a romantic comedy, a road picture and a grieving, dysfunctional family flick all struggling for attention, it's hard to focus on what's happening onscreen, much less get caught up in it.

The result is a film that seems cobbled together, with few natural transitions, threadbare character and plot development, and little sense of pacing. There may be a reason for this: The original cut of the film was 20 minutes longer. After it was panned at the Toronto Film Festival, Crowe trimmed it to its current 126-minute length. It's possible he left a lot of necessary narrative material on the cutting-room floor, but even at its original length, Elizabethtown would be an overstuffed mess.

Like his best work, 2000's Almost Famous, Crowe's latest is selectively autobiographical; here, a surprisingly bland Orlando Bloom stands in for the filmmaker. As Drew Baylor, Bloom's a hotshot shoe designer who bets everything on a piece of trendy footwear he calls the Spasmotica. When his project goes down in flames - Alec Baldwin is hilarious as the New-Age boss of the shoe company, which stands to lose nearly $1 billion - a despondent Drew contemplates suicide.

He's saved by an extreme plot turn - his father dies, and his sister (Judy Greer) calls, begging Drew to come home to Oregon. She and mom (a game Susan Sarandon) are having a tough time holding it together.

From Oregon, Drew is sent to his father's hometown of Elizabethtown, Ky., to take his father's ashes back to his family. (Crowe's father was from Elizabethtown and was visiting there when he died of a heart attack, shortly after the release of his son's directing debut, 1989's Say Anything ... ). On his way, Drew meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a beautiful, philosophical and relentlessly optimistic flight attendant who becomes Drew's de facto tour guide and muse.

That's plotline No. 1, and it may be the most ill-served by Crowe's jampacked script. Sure, Claire's a stock Hollywood character, the exuberant free spirit who's so filled with the joy of life that woe to the man who tries to resist her. But Dunst milks the part mercilessly, and few actresses can play appealing better than Dunst. Still, her linkup with Bloom's character is too arbitrary, and their spiritual bonds become too strong too quickly. Claire seems like a girl who does this kind of thing - bond strongly with strangers - all the time, which should not have been what Crowe was going for. Yes, there's something special about her, but there's nothing special about them (Drew and Claire).

Plotline No. 2 involves Drew leaving Elizabethtown with his father's ashes, embarking on a cross-country car trip (shouldn't Simon & Garfunkel have been on the soundtrack?). The journey has been mapped out with relentless cuteness by the absent Claire. Although this tale might have made a great film by itself, as a 20-minute segment, it feels rushed and undeveloped. It's not always appropriate, either: A visit to the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed - U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" plays in the background, natch - seems jarringly out of place.

Plotline No. 3 involves Drew's Kentucky relatives, who don't cotton to this Californian - they regard California and Oregon as the same place - sweeping into town and taking their beloved friend away. The movie doesn't do enough with these folks, Elizabethtown's most memorable characters.

As in any Crowe film, the music selection in Elizabethtown is a wonder, a mix of rock classics and obscure oldies that provides the perfect punctuation for what's there on the screen (although, do we really need to hear "Freebird" again?). The film also has plenty of clip-worthy moments; one in which Drew quiets a roomful of noisy kids comes to mind.

Crowe revels in his reputation as Hollywood's most determined optimist, refusing to put the dark edge on his films that some critics demand. Such resolve should be applauded. But even a talented filmmaker like Crowe needs to know his limitations. Not even he can shoehorn three screenplays into a movie barely big enough for one.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Elizabethtown (Paramount Pictures)

Starring Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon.

Directed by Cameron Crowe.

Rated PG-13.

Time 126 minutes.

Review C+

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