After lackluster festival reviews, director Cameron Crowe scrambles to get his heartfelt romantic comedy ''Elizabethtown'' in shape for general audiences. Will they show him the money?

By Christine Spines
September 30, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT
Elizabethtown Photograph by Sheryl Nields
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Cameron Crowe is having a quintessentially Cameron Crowe moment. If he had written it himself, an Elton John song might be playing over the scene and you, the fired-up audience member, would suddenly be singing along under your breath, rooting for the shaggy underdog to survive the firestorm that has engulfed his world, turning his life from comedy to high-stakes drama without his consent. In typical Crowe fashion, his rescue would probably come in the form of a soulful, beautiful woman with great taste in music who shows up with just enough good humor and good sense to remind him why he loves his life and that none of that other stuff matters. It’s been a rough week for Crowe, 48, who recently screened his new movie, Elizabethtown, at the Toronto film festival, and watched critics have at it like a piñata. Crowe, a best-screenplay Oscar winner for Almost Famous, has been a critics’ pet ever since he made his directorial debut with Say Anything… in 1989; which may be why he felt confident enough to take the risky step of entering the festival with an unfinished cut. His much-anticipated wistful black comedy follows a shoe designer (Orlando Bloom) whose professional fall from grace is cushioned by a new romance with an eccentric stewardess (Kirsten Dunst) and a reconnection with his Kentucky roots following his father’s death. But reviewers at Toronto reacted with something close to outrage, complaining the film was manipulative instead of moving, cloying instead of charming.

There are two gods whom filmmakers aim to please: critics and audiences. Having faltered with one, Crowe is now counting on regular moviegoers for redemption. Even before he hit the festival circuit, Crowe had begun assembling an alternate, shorter cut of the movie, just in case the longer one didn’t play. Now, he has his work cut out for him, with only three weeks to whittle his 135-minute Toronto version into the kind of tight, emotionally resonant crowd-pleaser his fans have come to expect. But even though Crowe is confident he’ll be able to iron out the wrinkles, the sting of bad reviews lingers, especially with a film as nakedly personal as this one, which was inspired by Crowe’s experiences in Elizabethtown, Ky., after his own father’s death in 1989.

Today, Crowe is peering out the front windshield of an Almost Famous-style rock & roll tour bus. He’s making another pilgrimage to Elizabethtown, where he’s come to premiere the eponymous movie he shot here last summer. He’s excited and a bit nervous as a police escort of four squad cars form a caravan leading him into town.

Crowe’s eyes widen as a crowd of hundreds appears on the roadside, waving homemade signs and cheering his arrival. (Cue Sir Elton.) There’s a guy holding a boom box above his head paying tribute to John Cusack’s lovelorn serenade in Say Anything…. Two middle-aged women display a banner saying ”Show me the movie!” Then there’s the teenage girl with a glittery poster bearing the Almost Famous catchphrase: ”It’s All Happening! Thank You, Cameron.”

For what seems like miles, diehards of all shapes and sizes line the rainy streets to hail Crowe for speaking to them in ways entirely personal to each of them. How else to explain a droopy-lidded man standing in the rain with a tiny, weeks-old infant tucked into the crook of his tattooed arm, holding an Elizabethtown poster in his free hand, and wearing a T-shirt proclaiming ”BEER: Helping ugly people have sex since 1862.” Crowe, clearly stirred by the outpouring, turns to face his wife (and Elizabethtown‘s composer), Nancy Wilson, from the band Heart, who came along for moral support. ”Well, I’m glad you’re here,” he says with a slight strain of melancholy, ”so it’s [proof] that it’s actually real.”

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  • PG-13
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