Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Life is a Highway. So Where's The Rest Stop?

Cameron Crowe is a director of great instincts, if not great talents. It takes great instincts to make a movie like Almost Famous — one of the most self-indulgent movies ever made — not seem self-indulgent. From Fast Times (which he wrote, but did not direct) to Say Anything to Jerry Maguire to Almost Famous (or the superior director's cut of the film, available on DVD as Untitled), Crowe's been a great populist: he makes pictures you feel good about liking. They are un-guilty pleasures, if such a thing exists. Even when you didn't like the film (i.e. Jerry Maguire in my case), you can still admire his instincts: that movie is the Dolly the lamb of romantic dramedies, genetically engineered to play the audience with a maestro's touch.

But this decade has not been kind to Crowe. The artistic and commercial success of Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous permitted him the indulgence of Vanilla Sky, the Zooropa to his Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. But Crowe's Zooropa was more successful than U2's: even though I don't know anyone who genuinely likes Vanilla Sky (a few admire it, a few defend it, but show me someone who actually likes it) the film made over $100 million. If it hadn't, Elizabethtown may have ended up more like All That You Can't Leave Behind and less like Pop. (And with that, I officially retire the metaphor. Moving on...)

Elizabethtown sounds enough like Jerry Maguire to suggest Crowe back in his element but there are too many loose ends and the project as a whole lacks a cohesive drive. Orlando Bloom plays Drew, a sneaker designer whose newest creation is about to cost his company a billion dollars. Just as he's about to kill himself the phone rings: Drew's father died. Temporarily putting suicide on hold, he flies down to his family's home in Elizabethtown, Kentucky to supervise the preparations for the funeral. On a flight to Kentucky in which he's the only passenger, he hits it off with an attendant named Claire (Kirsten Dunst); she takes a liking to him and keeps popping back into his life for the remainder of the film.

Cut by something like a half an hour after its disastrous Toronto Film Fest premiere, Elizabethtown still drags like it's too long by twenty minutes, yet its characters feel a little thin. Drew claims he didn't know his dad but we never really learn why (contrary to my expectations, the father did not leave the family when Drew was young). Susan Sarandon's mom has a big scene at the end of the film where she pays tribute to her dead husband, but we've only seen in her in perhaps three brief scenes for the previous two hours, so the moment carries no weight. The plot description says Drew gets fired and dumped by his girlfriend (Jessica Biel, in a brief cameo) but I don't know that I ever specifically saw either of those events. Things rise and fade in Elizabethtown without warning or explanation.

That may have been Crowe's intent. Certainly one of the biggest flaws of the film — that Bloom's character never seems to fit in with his family or connect with them in any way — is intentional. Perhaps that is Bloom's fault, as the actor floats along on a a cloud of malaise and an ethereal American accent and never seems grounded or connected to Drew, or much attracted to Dunst's Claire, or much upset over his father's passing.

That is, until the film's marvelous epilogue, which is so potent you almost want to go back and rewatch the rest of the movie and see if you misjudged it (note I said almost). After the funeral, Claire gives Drew a map of America and a batch of mix CDs and orders him to drive cross-country back to his home in Oregon, following her careful instructions and listening to her music. With his father's remains strapped in the passenger seat, good tunes on the dash, and the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System at his feet, Elizabethtown suddenly, exhilaratingly comes alive, as Crowe gives us a great tour of the South and Midwest, showing us what (I have to assume) are real exotic places and people of interest. Finally Crowe's instincts return; just as in Almost Famous, he has a deep sense of the beauty and serenity of the open road, and his skill with pop soundtracks is well established.

The film ends on a high note with its most romantic gesture, as a sort of anti-Brown Bunny. It's strange that Crowe's instincts betrayed him so badly for two hours but returned so vibrantly for the last fifteen minutes. There seems a lot more of himself, the seen-it-all, globe-trotting journalist and careful cartographer of the music nerd's soul, in that road trip than the rest of the film. Perhaps this was a personal story about Crowe and his own father that he felt needed to be told. But if he'd listened to his instincts he would have known he buried his lead and dumped the stuff of a sure-fire classic on the last reel before the credits.


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