By Sarah Carlson, Arts Editor
Americans love road-trip movies. For some reason, the possibilities of setting out across the country with only a map and a mixed tape as our guides inspires us, not to mention the coming-of-age stories that are generally intertwined in the adventure.
We love the idea of new beginnings and not knowing what we will discover just around the bend of the country road we’re traveling. Jack Kerouac captured the experience of beatniks in the 1950s in “On the Road,” a novel briefly alluded to in “Elizabethtown.” The lead character, Drew, begins his own cross-country road trip and examines the homemade, complex map he’s been given by a newfound love interest, Claire. The map begins with a quote from Kerouac, no doubt an inspiration for writer and director Cameron Crowe.
Unfortunately for Crowe, his own tribute to the open road in “Elizabethtown” is squashed between other narratives, ranging from professional failings, the loss of a parent, father-son relationships, new love interests, finding one’s muse, dealing with grief, getting in touch with one’s roots, small-town family life, overcoming fear and, of course, coming of age. All of these topics are touched on in “Elizabethtown” but are never developed. Crowe had too much on his plate this time to create his usual crowd-pleaser or cult hit, leaving those of us who fell in love with his previous film, “Almost Famous,” or perhaps “Jerry Maguire” or “Say Anything…,” confused and disappointed.
Drew (Bloom) loses his career, his girlfriend and his desire to live in the first few minutes of the film where his voiceover discusses the differences between fiascos, failures and successes-lines recently quoted so often by critics of the film that Crowe is probably regretting having written them.
Drew spent eight years designing an athletic shoe that ultimately cost his Nike-like company close to a billion dollars in losses. He is ruined, and as he plans his suicide, his cell phone rings: his father is dead, and his sister needs him to fly to Elizabethtown, Ky., to pick up the body and bring it back home to Oregon. He then hops a plane, fully planning to kill himself once the task is done.
Being one of the few passengers flying from Oregon to Louisville, Ky., he attracts the attention of the flight attendant, Claire (Dunst), whose personality fluctuates as easily as her bluegrass accent, which is Dunst’s fault, not Claire’s. She’s peppy, talkative and being from the area Drew is traveling to, draws him a map and constantly gives him directions and advice. He’s cordial and says goodbye once the plane lands thinking that is that, but it won’t be the last he sees of Claire.
He calls her after a long day of meeting his father’s side of the family, small-town Kentucky folk, who know everything about him and seem much too cheerful after losing their loved one. Drew calls Claire while juggling incoming calls from his sister (Greer), relaying stories of their mother’s (Sarandon) obsession with learning new activities to keep her mind off her grief, and his girlfriend (Biel), who dropped him as soon as his career floundered. He escapes the hectic calls and talks to Claire all night about anything and everything, and the two meet halfway between their locations to watch the sun rise. But, as Claire says while they share the picturesque moment, the relationship peaked on the phone, and their connection wasn’t as strong as they had hoped.
In between his encounters with Claire, Drew has to convince his father’s family on the idea of cremating his dad instead of burying him, which the Kentuckians are dead-set on. He helps make arrangements for the memorial service, all the while coming to terms with the fact that he wasn’t close to his father and can’t even cry about the news of his death.
Trying to relay the basic plotlines of “Elizabethtown” proves difficult because they have no consistency or logic to them. Drew’s relationship with Claire is endearing one minute and annoying the next, with a few awkward conversations in between-again, made awkward by the lack of acting, not the original design of the characters.
While the plotline is semi-autobiographical, taking Crowe back to his own father’s death and small-town life in Kentucky, most of the stories have either already been told in better films or do not make any sense. “Garden State” serves as a better example of a 20-something traveling home for a parent’s funeral, dealing with the culture he left behind and finding an eccentric and beautiful love interest, who changes his life. That plotline was probably what Cameron was aiming for, or should have been aiming for, but with no luck.
“Elizabethtown” falls flat in all aspects except the soundtrack, something Crowe can always be counted on for delivering. But Crowe can’t build his movies around his CD collection, no matter how great or inspiring the music is. If the characters aren’t appealing, it doesn’t matter what music they are running around on screen to.
Drew’s lines in the opening voiceover can best sum up the film: “There is a difference between a failure and a fiasco. Failure is simply the non-presence of success. But a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions.”
“Elizabethtown” is not a fiasco-it’s not large enough or important enough to earn the title, and Crowe is too talented to reach that level. It’s just the non-presence of success.