There is a scene in Elizabethtown during which Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) gets his first look at his father's dead body, lying in repose at a funeral home. As he's trying to discern what mood the mortician seems to have painted his dad's face into, the soundtrack kicks in with Elton John's "My Father's Gun" and I, right on cue, get chills. It's that kind of goose bump-inducing marriage of film and music that fans have come to expect from Cameron Crowe's movies—and his latest certainly doesn't disappoint on that score.
Named for a city in western Kentucky, Elizabethtown tells the story of Drew Baylor, a shoe designer who, on the day we meet him, is fired from his job in Oregon (when his latest design flops, costing his company almost a billion dollars), is dumped by his girlfriend, contemplates suicide—and then learns his father has died in Kentucky where he was visiting family. Dad's death puts Drew's suicide plans on hold, since his distraught mother and sister insist that Drew travel to Kentucky to retrieve the body.
On his flight from Oregon to Kentucky, Drew meets preternaturally perky flight attendant Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst), who gives him pronunciation lessons (Louisville = LOO-uh-vul), driving instructions to Elizabethtown ("don't miss exit 60B; it's tricky"), and her phone number. Despite Claire's careful instructions, Drew does manage to get lost at 60B but eventually makes his way to Elizabethtown, where he's greeted in by a cadre of eccentric small-town characters—family and friends. Paul Schneider (All the Real Girls, George Washington) shines in his supporting role as cousin, single father, and wannabe rock star Jesse. And the rest of the family is populated with familiar faces—Aunt Dora (TV cook Paula Deen), Uncle Dale (Loudon Wainwright III), Sharon (Patty Griffin), and Jesse's band mates (My Morning Jacket, from nearby Louisville).
In Elizabethtown, Drew is reintroduced to the vibrant community he hasn't visited since he was a child. He wrestles with the town's perception of him—a successful hot-shot shoe designer from the West Coast—and the failure he knows he's become. He also reflects on all the time his work forced him to spend away from his family. Now that his dad is gone, was it really worth it? This is, of course, the central tension Crowe is trying to address—what is our vision for what constitutes a well-lived life? Society might define it as one with plenty of monetary success and status. But perhaps there's more to it. And perhaps that "more" has to do with being deeply connected to your family, with learning how to live through failure, with falling in love.
The ideas that drive Elizabethtown are of the most ideal and worthwhile sort. Where the movie stumbles isn't so much in substance, as in emphasis. The opening sequence in which Drew is fired serves to set up the tension between two visions of life, but it could have served that purpose in a fraction of the time and left more room for the closing road trip, to which the narrative builds, to serve as more than a coda. And while it's almost impossible to imagine a Crowe-penned screenplay without a redemptive heroine, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened in the development of the family storyline if Claire played a smaller role. For example, at one point, in the course of giving his son Jesse a lecture about needing to keep a tighter reign on his own young son, Uncle Dale says pointedly, "You can't be friends with your own son!" I wish Crowe had further explored that idea. As it is, Drew spends his days with his family and his nights with Claire (yes, he kept her phone number), and I can't tell whether the love story is interrupting the flow of the family story or vice versa.
The performances are solid. Dunst shows her dramatic mettle in the moments when Claire is saying one thing, but wants to mean something entirely different. And Bloom is winsome, though his American accent could probably use a little more work. One imagines they could indeed save each other from their respective delusions and build a life together. But it's Kentucky that really steals the show. Like Drew, Crowe's own father died suddenly while visiting his family in Kentucky, and the experience served as inspiration when writing Elizabethtown. He paints the eccentricity of the locals with an affectionate brush. And, for those unfamiliar with this part of the country, the landscape will be a quiet revelation. "I don't think I would have made this movie if the studio had said you can't go to Kentucky [to shoot the film]," Crowe said in a recent interview. "And I think the movie looks and feels different from a lot of movies because we did go there. It's a love letter to my dad. And to Kentucky."Discussion starters
- When lecturing his son Jesse about keeping a tighter reign on his own young son, Uncle Dale says, "You can't be friends with your own son!" Do you agree? Why or why not?
- "So, you failed," Claire says to Drew. In essence, she's saying it's no big deal. What do you think of her take on failure? How should Drew respond to his professional collapse? How would you respond?
- The death of his father provides Drew an opportunity to embrace life. Can you think of any negative events in your life that turned out to be catalysts for positive changes?
- How do you define what it means to lead a well-lived life? Consider Micah 6:8—what additional Scripture passages provide guidance for defining a well-lived life?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Claire and Drew are shown kissing and then waking up in bed together. The language is mild.
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from Film Forum, 10/20/05
True love. Attractive young people. A soundtrack full of classic rock and fresh new pop music. A sense of humor. These are the building blocks of a Cameron Crowe film. He's made this combination work in several audience favorites, from Say Anything to Singles to Jerry Maguire to Almost Famous. After misfiring with a mixed-up thriller called Vanilla Sky, Crowe has now gone back to what he does best. The result is Elizabethtown. Is he back on top his game?
Not quite. While most mainstream film critics are praising Elizabethtown for serving up some memorable sequences, many of them agree that the film is severely flawed … even though the negative early reviews provoked Crowe to do a last-minute re-edit of the film.
Elizabethtown is the story of an audacious young professional who hits rock bottom and learns hard lessons about family through a series of emotional epiphanies. In an ironic twist, Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is saved from a suicide attempt when he hears about his father's death. On the flight to join his mourning family, Baylor meets a sexy flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst), and they fall in love just as his life becomes entangled in family dramas.
Christian critics share mixed responses, praising Crowe's obvious convictions about family values, but criticizing his storytelling skills.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it a "sentimental, though not wholly satisfying, romantic comedy-drama which paradoxically uses death to celebrate life. … The movie's baggy script and cutesy dialogue are surmounted by the movie's genial message that life, though full of risk, is ultimately worth living."
"Beyond the film's cool soundtrack and intriguing aesthetic, it tackles important issues such as recovering from failure and coping with the loss of a loved one," says Bob Smithouser (Plugged In). "It discourages denial, wants audiences to hang tough and take risks, and recommends that we rely on family for our safety net. … It makes you want to call home while there's still a home to call." He also cautions viewers about "ambiguous sexual ethics and a few choice words."
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says this "light but satisfying meditation on despair, failure, and family ties proves to be an enjoyable two hours. … A film that dwells on the importance of parental influence and suggests that worldly pursuits can be empty has something to say. And hopefully a generationthat hasinherited an ethic of materialism and career 'fulfillment' … will be ready to hear it."
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) calls Crowe "one of the best writer-directors working in Hollywood. That's why Elizabethtown is both doubly disappointing and still understandable. Disappointing because it just never finds its rhythm, and understandable because Crowe isn't a cookie-cutter creator and misfires are the price his genius must pay."
Jonathan Wooten (Christian Spotlight) thinks the lead actor is part of the problem. "[Bloom] lacks the charisma necessary to carry a character-driven film. He and Kirsten Dunst do make a good on screen couple though, and this is a genuinely sweet love story. … Hopefully, like with Almost Famous, we will eventually be blessed with a different director's cut."from Film Forum, 10/27/05
Andrew Coffin (World) writes that the film is "kind of a mess. The plot veers wildly from quiet, understated moments to over-the-top scenes that verge on parody. But Mr. Crowe still manages to tell an idiosyncratic story that deals affectionately with characters often marginalized by Hollywood."
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