Garden State without the matching clothes and wallpaper, Elizabethtown allows Cameron Crowe to sort through the emotional rubble of his father’s death vicariously through Orlando Bloom, whose Drew Baylor character returns to his father’s titular Kentucky hometown in order to tend to the old man’s body. We’re meant to project ourselves onto Bloom’s character, except the blank slate of emotions the actor evokes shouldn’t be confused with a plea for identification—it’s simply bad acting. (Drew is unable to cry for his father, but is that a sign of what the character isn’t ready to do or Bloom’s own limitations?) Elizabethtown may be a personal moment for Crowe, but given the self-aggrandizing film’s solipsistic chatter, relentless spectacle of cute, and wall-to-wall songs, it’s an experience that probably means more to the director than anyone else in the world.
The preciousness begins when Drew is fired for losing his shoe company $972 million. Crowe skimps on the details of whatever miscalculation led to the crisis, suggesting something was probably left on the editing room floor following the film’s disastrous premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Instead, we get a Zach Braff-ian spectacle of shots with a center-framed Drew staring into the camera and finishing his own narration’s sentences. (Cute!) Just as the shoes he’s responsible for designing are now being recalled, Drew decides to follow suit by recalling his own life. He clears out his apartment, attaches a knife to his exercise machine, but before he can turn the thing on, a phone call from his sister (Judy Greer) saves the day. Like that heinous moment from Almost Famous when a would-be plane accident perpetuates some dude’s coming-out, Crowe makes a funny out of tragedy.
On his way to Elizabethtown, Drew is hijacked on a plane by a stewardess, Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who is glibly defined entirely by her quirks. She comes on strong but, in the end, Drew can’t resist her infectious charms. “I think I’ve been asleep most of my life,” she says to Drew during an epic-length phone call that ends with them meeting on the side of some road to check out the sunrise. (So cute!) But Drew’s grief over his father’s death gets in their way and what ensues is a creepily sustained game of goodbyes and hellos. Like Drew’s mom, Hollie (Susan Sarandon)—who takes to baking, tap dancing, car repair, and improv comedy after her husband’s death as a means of directing her flustered emotional state—Claire doesn’t resemble a living, breathing woman so much as a vacuum of whimsy, sucking in the misery of the world and blowing it back as joyous exhaust. For audiences, she might be irresistible if she didn’t possess the integrity of a stalker.
A stalker label for Claire is fitting given that Elizabethtown is not unlike a fetish object designed both to pander to the audience’s grown-up adolescence and flatter Crowe’s own love of music. The world revolves around the characters in Crowe’s films (see the numerous shots of people meeting each other halfway across crowded rooms, like couples trapped inside snow globes) much in the same way these films revolve around the last 100 songs Crowe has downloaded onto his iPod. The jukebox of aural noise is a constant presence, alternately underscoring, exaggerating, and belittling every beat in the story. (Sometimes a second song begins before the first one has even ended.) The writer-director can’t even resist contriving a rainy concert fiasco out of Mitch’s funeral reception. These concert-as-life scenarios, like the soundtrack of songs, reflect precious little about the lives of the film’s character. All they reflect is Crowe’s masturbatory love of music—and what is Elizabethtown but watching Crowe beat off for two hours?