It is a truth universally acknowledged that amateur travelogues are more engrossing for the one who has traveled than for those hailing the traveler’s return. Looking at an image, the traveler recalls not only the names of the young couple he met from the hotel room down the hall — Chuck and Cindy, lovebirds getting married who favor bridal-party T-shirts blazing Chuck and Cindy’s special snookums slogan — but also what the stale air felt like in that hallway. Those greeting the traveler and his indulgent video footage, meanwhile, look at pictures of Chuck and Cindy and think, ”Jeez, I’m glad I wasn’t there. Hey, look, a cornfield. Huh, funny T-shirts. Gotta remember to wash a load of darks.”
Think of Elizabethtown as Cameron Crowe’s rambling amateur travelogue, one from a well-liked professional filmmaker momentarily so distracted by private notes scrawled on his souvenir map that he gets lost en route to telling his story of self-renewal. This undershaped, overlong warmedy is an homage to the memory of his late father (just as Almost Famous was an homage to his mother), to the love of a good woman (just as Renée Zellweger completed Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire), and to the balm of extended family who really don’t care whether you’re a famous success in the big, fancy world or not, so long as you stay awhile, eat a second helping, and pause to enjoy a gander at the stars. It’s an album of vignettes — there actually is an encounter with a bridal couple called Chuck and Cindy, and it’s clear that seeing their picture, the filmmaker remembers how in love with love the two appeared to be, so optimistic and full of American spirit, and with such charmingly corny taste in T-shirts; their guileless hopefulness contrasted poignantly with the lone traveler’s own complicated despair on that specimen day. There’s also a very long, uncomfortable tap dance (a literal tap dance) from Susan Sarandon as a life-affirming widow, and a tonally jarring visit to the motel site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. And from Crowe the famous former rock journalist who knows how potent pop sound can be, there’s an extended shuffle of songs, as if he never wants the tunes to stop, ever. In Elizabethtown, they don’t — they work overtime, and still there’s a space where Crowe’s yearning to convey what matters to him isn’t met by the viewing party he provides.
Casting is part of the problem. Dreamy to preteen girls as he is, Orlando Bloom reflects no light as Drew Baylor, a young hotshot shoe designer and media celebrity who has just seen his new sneaker design flop in the market-place. (I suppose Crowe ”failed” with Vanilla Sky, but surely not with such grandiose consequence.) Bloom’s affect is so wan and passive that it’s difficult to believe this Drew could win big, lose big, or even sneeze big, although I like that Crowe has situated his spiritually depleted hero at a high-rolling Oregon-based company transparently modeled on Nike. (Alec Baldwin makes brief, fine mischief as the big boss, Phil, transparently modeled on Nike’s Phil Knight.) Are we meant to conclude that moviemaking and shoemaking share similarities of product and process? We are: Sometimes you make a hit, and sometimes you make a wonton-shaped loser of an athletic shoe (or movie) that threatens to sink a company. But before Drew can commit seppuku, proportion is restored by a tragedy bigger than dud footwear: His mother (Sarandon) and sister (Judy Greer), who are also Oregon transplants, inform him that his father has suddenly died while visiting the original family homestead in Kentucky, and it’s up to Drew to fly out and accompany the body back to the Northwest. Death of a sole is trumped by death of a soul.
The rest of Elizabethtown — given a good remedial editing once-over since its unveiling at the Toronto film festival but still squirreling and sidetracking too often for the simple, intimate size of the story — is how Drew journeys from here to there and back again, and what music he listens to on his journey. Oh, and boy meets girl: On the plane trip out, Drew crosses fate with Claire, a determinedly upbeat flight attendant played by Kirsten Dunst, and she becomes part of the odyssey too.
”I’m impossible to forget but hard to remember,” Claire peeps, one of the many koans of nothingness she chirrups, with Dunst smiling and shrugging frequently to suggest goodness of heart in the absence of concrete details of personality. The phrase is cute — like a Chuck and Cindy T-shirt — but what does it mean? There’s no time to consider: We’re on to another song.