Thursday, September 17, 2009
Outside of a brief stint on Staten Island as a kid and spending the majority of my teenage years in Indiana, I have lived most of my life in the very wacky and always weird state of Kentucky. My more than a quarter of a century in Kentucky has been a love-hate story for the most part, but as I am getting closer and closer to the big 40 that relationship has turned into mostly a love affair. Contrary to popular belief, Kentucky is not a backwards place at all, and it is one of the great mostly untapped cinematic goldmines in the country. So, any young filmmakers looking to fill a film with shots that haven’t been seen on screen, then come to Kentucky…specifically the stretch that connects Lexington, Frankfort, Louisville and Elizabethtown.
Kind of like my early reservations about Kentucky, my feelings about the films of Cameron Crowe are a bit mixed as well. While the fact that he has written two of my all time favorite films (Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Almost Famous) pretty much guarantees him a special place in my heart, it is kind of hard to deny that the man’s career has been spotty at best with only occasional flashes of the brilliance that he undoubtedly possesses. Never has he been more frustrating as a writer and director than in his 2005 production Elizabethtown, a film that stands as one of the biggest cinematic misfires of the decade.
Living in Kentucky in 2005, I can tell you that there was a lot of hope for Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown and, in the months leading up to it, there was a real excitement in the air so the many failures of the final film were extremely disappointing. This should have been the film that sold my state as one of the wonderfully hidden cinematic treasures in the country, but its justified critical and popular failure in the fall of 2005 buried a lot of our hopes. Kentucky now remains a state that might be included in a film but it probably won’t be the center of it.
The most frustrating thing about Elizabethtown is that it has moments of breathtaking brilliance. Despite all of its problems, and there are a lot of them, it is not an easy film to completely dismiss and its good qualities make it linger in the mind long after the final credits have rolled. Crowe’s film has been on my mind a lot recently for some reason, and watching it again only confirmed for me that it is indeed one of the most unfortunate failures of the past ten years as it could have been such a winning production.
Elizabethtown’s biggest problem can be felt in its dreadful first fifteen minutes, an opening section that ranks among the decade’s worst. Crowe’s greatest gift as a screenwriter is his ability to bring us characters that we can relate to, characters that we can look at and recognize ourselves in. His decision to build Elizabethtown around Drew Baylor, a tennis-shoe designer whose mysterious pre-film blunder has cost his company over half a billion dollars, is a strange and upsetting one. Crowe was obviously looking to present a character facing a major failure, but how many people in the audience can relate to a guy like this? I can’t, and every time Baylor’s unbelievable career failing comes up in the film’s running time I cringe.
If you can get through Elizabethtown’s awful opening section, which wastes the considerable talents of both Alec Baldwin and Jessica Biel, then you can find some of the films many, if sporadic pleasures. What you can’t do though is escape the second major problem with the film, the miscasting of wooden Orlando Bloom as the already terribly undefined Drew Baylor, a man who is forced to return to his once Kentucky home to help arrange his father’s funeral.
Orlando Bloom can be an effective actor in the right part, but he doesn’t have the emotional gravity necessary to deliver a performance that calls for him to be so emotionally unstable that he is considering suicide. Ironically Crowe had the chance to recast the part due to Bloom’s scheduling conflicts with Kingdom of Heaven, but the writer and director was stuck on the handsome British actor for some reason and it is a miscasting that Elizabethtown never recovers from.
Thankfully, outside of Bloom and one other member I will mention later,
Elizabethtown’s cast is pretty extraordinary. Luminous Kirsten Dunst is perfect as the airline attendant Claire Colburn that Baylor falls in love with, and the film is at its best when Dunst is on the screen. Always reliable Judy Greer is also on hand, although she is frustratingly underused, as is the terrific Paul Schneider (an actor by the way who would have been absolutely perfect in Bloom’s role).
Crowe also uses the Kentucky settings remarkably well and, if nothing else, Elizabethtown does work as a lovely visual valentine to the state thanks to the directors sharp eye for locations, and the gorgeous photography of his cinematographer John Toll. Despite some editorial issues, the film is thankfully technically top-notch all the way through. Even Crowe’s overuse of songs in place of Nancy Wilson’s lovely score can be forgiven, if only because the former rock writer Crowe still has mostly terrific taste in music.
Despite the pleasures its cast and crew give it, Elizabethtown is an overwhelmingly heavy-handed film throughout, and for every moment that works there are several that fall irritatingly flat. It is as though Crowe didn’t have anyone around to tell him when he was going too far, or not far enough, something that even the greatest artists need, especially on intensely personal projects (as clearly Elizabethtown was for Cameron Crowe). Nowhere is this lack of good editorial judgment more apparent than in a horrendous late film monologue by miscast Susan Sarandon (playing Baylor's mom) that nearly destroys the memory of the best parts of the film. The rambling speech Sarandon gives during her character's late husband's wake is, simply put, a career worst moment for the Oscar winning actress. Her poor performance is made even worse by Crowe's seemingly inability to realize just how off the scene is. It’s the kind of god-awful moment that even Crowe’s biggest admirers would be hard pressed to defend.
After the debacle of Susan Sarandon’s late film monologue and dance (seriously, if ever a scene was designed for the cutting room floor this was it) a viewer would expect Elizabethtown to collapse completely under its own inflated weight but then something unexpected happens. Beginning with a crazy but inspired performance of “Free Bird”, the final half hour of Elizabethtown unexpectedly soars. I would argue that the film Elizabethtown should have been happens in its final few minutes, after Claire gives Drew a folder with mix cds that she has timed to a road trip for he and his recently cremated father to take. Despite some heavy handed voice over (another thing that plagues the film), this is the brilliant and moving film Elizabethtown should have been…a bruised and oddly humorous road movie about a broken man travelling with the remains of his father and scattering his ashes across America. I still recall literally yelling at the screen when I saw this in an empty Frankfort theater in 2005, “Cameron, this is your God Damned movie!”
Great final few minutes aside, Elizabethtown is sadly still for the most part a major failure. I don’t mean to beat up on Crowe (I really like and admire the guy) as I know this was a project close to his heart, but it is nowhere near the film it should have been. Eagerly anticipated as one of the big films of 2005, Elizabethtown mostly tanked with critics, and it didn’t do any better with audiences as it barely made back half of its inflated sixty million dollar budget. It’s fared a bit better on DVD, where its smaller and more touching moments are easier to spot and its failures are easier to forgive, but the fact that some of the deleted material on the DVD (and its now rare bonus disc) is better than much of what's in the film makes the whole thing all the more frustrating.
Even though I should let it go, I still can’t quite shake Elizabethtown. The image of a soaked but smiling Kirsten Dunst that kicks off the film’s near miraculous final half hour haunted me for months after seeing it in 2005, and it pretty much guarantees that I will return to the film again and again, despite how unbelievably frustrating it is. There is also the pleasure of seeing my state presented so beautifully on screen as who doesn't love to watch a film, even a flawed one, where you can say over and over again, "I know that place, that's been my home for most of my life."