Half of the reason I went to see Elizabethtown is that it features a song (Sugar Blue) from my favorite underappreciated troubadour Jeff Finlin. But Sugar Blue was only one song on a soundtrack crammed with songs. In fact, the movie bent over backwards to include so many songs, and the movie suffers a severe case of back strain because of it.
The Weight of the World
PG-13 for language, sexual references
Asked to support all this music is a genial story of a son traveling into foreign territory to retrieve his father’s ashes. The foreign territory in this case is Kentucky, from which vantage Oregon is a suburb of California, which is inhabited by all those Hollywood phonies.
His dad had been visiting his side of the family — something he did alone — when he died unexpectedly. So going to Kentucky means meeting family that Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) had never met before — always an awkward proposition. You’re strangers, and yet you feel an obligation to be immediately open and friendly. You know there is a bond, but you haven’t yet built it into your emotions.
Adding to the stress in Drew’s life is the fact that he spent the last seven years of his life designing and developing a new shoe, which is such a huge failure that it will cost his former employer nearly a billion dollars in losses. Seven years of sweat, labor, and passion, all for less than nought.
With all this weighing on Drew’s mind, the well-meaning come-on of a pretty flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) makes no more impression than a bump in the sidewalk.
Crowe walks us from one development to the next. The shoe-centric introduction leads to the news of Dad’s death, which leads to the “meeting the family” scenes, which leads to a lonely call to the friendly stewardess. This gives way to the memorial and funereal wackiness, which is followed by the gratuitous road trip and the requisite happy ending. Crowe’s story doesn’t have an arc so much as a winding S-curve through an overgrown forest.
The movie is entertaining, and Crowe is a good guide. It’s always a joy to learn a little bit more about these vibrant characters, and some of the scenes are downright inspired. The day-long phone conversation between friends-going-on-lovers is a great cinematic scene that may well become one of the iconic moments of this decade’s movies.
But enough of the film is manipulative and contrived that Elizabethtown fails to ring true after the lights come up. The movie we enjoyed suddenly looks silly and “romantic” and as insubstantial as the first snowflake of winter.
Two scenes in particular seem particularly hard to swallow. Drew’s mother (Susan Sarandon, throwing herself into the role with aplomb), about whom we know nothing, “lightens” her husband’s funeral with some stand-up comedy. Perhaps if the movie were hers alone, and we had come to know her intimately over the course of the movie, we could tolerate such a brazen attempt to merge comedy with drama. But, as well as it played to my audience, it felt shallow and manipulative, all the more so after walking out of the theater.
The final ten minutes is a road trip so carefully scored to a series of pop songs (including Sugar Blue), that one wonders why Crowe doesn’t simply include a CD with every ticket and save us all the trouble of pretending that we’re still watching the movie.
If you’re inclined to see Elizabethtown, don’t let me stop you. It’s entertaining and emotional and not a bad way to kill two hours. Or, instead, pick up the soundtrack album and just listen to the movie.