Review: Elizabethtown

Posted by: Mark McLeod  //  October 14, 2005 @ 11:59am

Filed under: Movie Reviews 

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) seemingly has it all. He's got a successful job designing shoes and the result of 8 long years of work is about to hit the market. He's dating the boss's assistant and while he's missed the last few family occasions, things on the surface at least are all going well. Then it all happens: his shoe design has a critical flaw and is being recalled from the market at the cost of a number that can be safely rounded up to one billion dollars. He finds himself without the job, without the girl, and if he has his way soon, without his life. Just when he thinks life can't get any worse, a call from his sister (Judy Greer) informs him that his father has passed away and that she and his mom Holly (Susan Sarandon) need him to head down to Kentucky to deal with the other side of the family and retrieve the body. Soon, Drew finds himself on the red-eye where he meets spunky flight attendant Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst), whose incessant chatter prevents him from sleeping. Hoping to get rid of her for good after the flight, he finds she's slyly slipped him her number, but thinks nothing of it until he's back alone in his hotel room after a day of phone tag and discussions with his eccentric extended family. After calling and not reaching just about everyone he knows, he decides to call her, which leads to one of those all-night conversations where everything becomes clear as night and he begins to start dealing with his loss and repairing his own sorrow with the warmth that comes from forming a new close bond. Drew then takes the opportunity to discover his father through those who knew him better while discovering himself through his conversations with Claire. Along the way, he manages to help his cousin with his young child and learn that compromise is an important life lesson. Through his father's death, Drew learns that there's more to being happy than just being successful.

Elizabethtown is the latest film from writer/director Cameron Crowe, best known to audiences for his work on Say Anything and Jerry McGuire. Crowe is a unique filmmaker in that his films are character as opposed to plot-based. He's the sort of director that makes a film that audience members can relate to on a personal level. It's not the destination but the journey, which is no more evident than in his semi-autobiographical films like Almost Famous and now Elizabethtown. Simply put, Crowe uses plot to set off a number of moments that to some people will seem as overly manipulative and heart-pulling but to others such as myself will seem like true-to-heart moments that are relatable in one's own life.

There has been much ado about this film in the media in the last month prior to its commercial release and to a lesser extent during the production phase itself. Crowe debuted Elizabethtown in early September as a "work in progress" cut at the Toronto International Film Festival. After those initial screenings, the film became critically-panned in the press, leaving fans to believe if the otherwise golden boy Crowe had finally turned out a less-than-stellar piece of filmmaking (okay, Vanilla Sky doesn't count because it's not a personal story from Crowe). It turns out the cut shown in Toronto was already not the most recent cut of the film, due to the deadline imposed by the festival, and at the time of the screenings Crowe had already begun work on trimming it down further. Having had the opportunity to view both the "work in progress" cut which ran 132 minutes with end titles and the final release cut which runs 12 minutes shorter, I can say that the genesis of the film is the same and with the odd exception of some lost dialogue, the film is just as powerful in this finished version.

Elizabethtown is a film about the journey Drew takes when his already crumbling world falls apart even further than he could imagine. Imagine having everything you know taken away from you all at once and having it built slowly back together through a connection with an individual so strong that you don't know how you lived before without them. To me, that is what this film is about. It's about finding happiness and joy in life when you've almost given up hope that they exist. The plot is simplistic and merely a catalyst to unlock a series of emotions that are contained deep within the character of Drew and awaiting a way to escape to the forefront. For Drew, that key is Claire, who he initially doesn't know how to handle but warms up to during that all-night phone call where he lets her into his heart and world.

Given the very personal nature of the story and the fact this is a character-based piece, it would all come crumbling apart at the seams if it were miscast. Casting is another area at which Crowe continually excels, with the pairing of Tom and Renée in Jerry McGuire and now Orlando and Kirsten here. Orlando Bloom steps out of his action comfort zone and steps into the role of a romantic lead with extreme ease. Although I initially had some reservations, Bloom plays a distant person who just wants to be truly happy well, and as the character begins to find happiness, he comes alive in the role. Although Bloom is good, the real standout performance comes from Kirsten Dunst, who passed on The Village to appear here. In my opinion she made the right choice. Dunst's Claire Colburn is a breath of fresh air, the kind of person every man needs in his life. She's so infectiously charming and real, almost to her own detriment, that you want to spend every minute of every day with her just because you can't stand to be apart. Dunst, who's never been a favorite of mine, manages to prove with this role that she does have the acting chops and is not just another pretty face. Also appearing are Susan Sarandon and the terribly underused Judy Greer, who I wish someone would discover and set her loose on the world.

It comes as no surprise that Cameron Crowe is one filmmaker whose work I always look forward to, as I'm always able to feel a connection to his well drawn out characters. It should also come as no surprise that with Elizabethtown, I have formed an even greater connection to the characters of Drew and Claire, which in many ways feature parallels to people I know in my own life. It may sound cheesy, but I see a lot of myself in Drew. My dad is still alive, and although I know him quite well there is always room for improvement. I haven't been the happiest person in life with work and relationships and friendships though through meeting someone (let's call her my Claire), in the last year that has changed drastically, and while I experience moments of pain because of that friendship, she has the infectious energy that you just can't help but want to be around. So in a way, everyone knows a Drew and a Claire " or people who hold those roles in each other's lives " and through this film it will help unlock those important relationships.

Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown isn't the filmmaker's best piece of work, but it is another in a long line of stories with strong emphasis on the personal journeys we undertake in life. Set to another well-timed and put together soundtrack and featuring moments that will make you laugh, cry, and want to cherish the thing we call life, this is one late fall release you'll be able to fall in love with. Crowe himself has said the film is not necessarily for the cynical critic market but is more of a populist film that will appeal to the North American public and anyone who's ever taking a journey of self discovery. I hope that audiences take a chance to visit Elizabethtown, because I think they'll be happy with what they uncover, and for those dreamers out there, it proves that there is always something worth looking for in life. Recommended.

Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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