Athletic shoe designer Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) has just learned his surefire hit creation cost his company close to $1 billion in losses. On his way to commit suicide, Drew also learns his father has passed away while visiting his extended family. At the behest of his mother (Susan Sarandon), Drew flies to Kentucky to retrieve the body and arrange a funeral, meeting a friendly flight attendant named Claire (Kristen Dunst) along the way, to whom he takes an immediate liking. Struggling to remain tranquil while being swarmed by relatives (including Paul Schneider, Loudon Wainwright, and Bruce McGill), Drew finds solace in Claire's company, all the while struggling to figure out how this death, coupled with his professional catastrophe, will eventually shape him.
Cameron Crowe makes motion pictures about moments, not momentum. Maybe that's why his films tend to annoy a select few in the world who can't wrap their minds around screenplays that take pride in baring their optimistic soul. After taking a slight detour from his usual trappings of love and life with the underrated 2001 thriller "Vanilla Sky," Crowe returns to explore the one subject that has made him indispensable in the cinema landscape: people.
Admittedly, Crowe has been down this road of relationships, grief, and fatigue before. "Elizabethtown" (IMDb listing) is the type of film that if you're not inside its snug embrace within 10 minutes, you might as well head back home. It's Crowe's most jittery production, due to some last-minute editing to pare down an unwieldy running time. However, there's an unmistakable potency to the honeyed enchantment contained within the picture. Crowe is at his best when concentrating on characters coming together, be it through love, anger, or friendship, and "Elizabethtown" is a film dedicated to acknowledging those fragile strings of connection. How better to celebrate the dysfunction of human chemistry than with Crowe's favorite arsenal: music, indecision, and precise moments of idiosyncrasy.
Plot-wise, "Elizabethtown" is Crowe's most loosey goosey film to date, at times randomly searching the frame for objects and people to lock on to. The story of Drew's trip to Elizabethtown is only the beginning of the journey for the character and the film, but Crowe manages to keep his scenes focused long enough to manufacture a warmly glowing flow that has become the filmmaker's trademark. Through Drew's introspective narration, in which he details his professional hell along with his reluctance to feel anything, "Elizabethtown" is an immediately ingratiating experience. It's a film about family, and Crowe gets right into that thicket with POV shots of Drew infiltrating his father's extended clan (including a scene-stealing Paula Deen), and the suffocation that typically accompanies meeting familiar strangers at household gatherings. I think everyone can relate to that sensation. And in the middle of the hectic funeral complications, there's this intimate, tender relationship blossoming between Drew and Claire, and their abnormally restrained (non)courtship.
What really surprises about the film is Crowe's ability to get a performance of substance out of Orlando Bloom. Always the swashbuckler or the silent threat, Bloom (who could've used Legolas' aim in nailing down an American accent) professionally leaps miles forward with "Elizabethtown," giving a handsomely comprehensive performance that shows a rainbow of reactions and considerations never asked of this actor before. This is miles ahead of what the actor has simply been allowed to do up to this point, and the challenge is long overdue. Bloom needs time to grow as an actor, but this is a pleasant indication that there's hope behind those eerie good looks of his.
Kirsten Dunst is also blessed with an intricate role that the actress runs away with. Playing an adult for once, Dunst's Claire is not the typical girl-of-dreams fantasy, but mostly a beautiful dork that has mastered the fine art of masking emotions with goofy, persistent charm. Dunst really captures Claire's insecurities with the character's realization that this relationship might not be meant for the long term. There's a reaction shot of Clair in a bubble bath after finally getting Drew to admit his attraction to her that is both indicative of the character's victory with a man she adores and a wonderful button on Dunst's entire performance, where she makes earnest, unwieldy affection look so appealing and real.
While an unabashed valentine to the Kentucky title city, "Elizabethtown" makes an unexpected move in the final reel, and takes a literal road trip around the American Midwest as Drew gets to spend overdue time with his father. Crowe essentially drops the plot entirely as Drew drives from location to location (scored with detailed mix CDs from Claire), giving the audience a chance to enjoy roadside attractions and landmarks, and allowing Drew his glorious moments of paternal bonding. While many themes run throughout "Elizabethtown," one of the juicier veins is the idea of taking time to smell the roses, and appreciating as many moments as one can. In this odd but entirely appropriate conclusion, Crowe practices what he preaches, and winds the picture down on an eloquent note of achievement.
"Elizabethtown" is an irresistibly comfy experience, like wearing a thick sweater during the bitterest days of winter, reading a book a foot deep into a soft couch, or listening to an Abba CD at top volume. It scoops viewers up and hugs them affectionately as it tries to present locations and feelings not typically indulged by the average film. Cameron Crowe has added another demonstrative, delightfully acted picture to his filmography, and I hope we don't have to wait another five years to get more from him.
Filmfodder Grade: A