A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, PG-13, 120 mins.
Drew Baylor: Orlando Bloom / Claire Colburn: Kirsten Dunst / Hollie Baylor: Susan Sarandon
/ Phil DeVoss: Alec Baldwin / Bill Banyon: Bruce McGill / Heather Baylor: Judy Greer
/ Ellen Kishmore: Jessica Biel / Jessie Baylor: Paul Schneider
Cameron Crowe’s newest romantic drama/comedy – ELIZABETHTOWN – sure was a much better and satisfying film going experience when it was called GARDEN STATE. The similarities between the two are utterly unmistakable.
Both contain young men in their twenties that are in a sort of melancholy, Generation X’er existentialist funk. Both main characters seem depressed at the beginning of their respective stories. Both men have sort of fallen out from their respective families and have been essentially AWOL from them for years. Both men soon find that a respective parental figure has suddenly passed away and now find themselves having to quickly return home after a long absence for the funeral. Both men try to rediscover and reconnect with their family, which largely occurs in highly awkward and sometimes emotionally wounding ways. And finally, both men meet irrepressibly cute, vibrant, energetic, persistently happy and bubbly women that - gosh darn it - are so charming and affable that they are able to save the men from their descent into depression and, as a result, make them realize why life is not so sucky after all.
It’s not just the obvious superficial similarities between ELIZABETHTOWN and Zack Braff’s infinitely superior GARDEN STATE that ultimately does in Crowe’s film. Nope, the other detrimental problems with this film are surprisingly numerous, one of which is its absorbingly long running time, which seems like more of an audience endurance test than it should have been. This film, which already runs at slightly over two hours, was originally some 18-20 minutes longer. With that realization, I found it difficult to even comprehend watching this film at almost two and a half hours for it is already too densely packed with material and content as it is.
Apparently, the film received some near-disastrous critical and audience responses from it’s early showings at some National late-summer film festivals, so much so that Crowe went back and cut the film down to narrow the focus on what should have been the main thrust of the plot. Well, despite the fact that I have not seen the original, longer cut, I can say confidently that his shorter ELIZABETHTOWN does not seem like much of a drastic improvement. ELIZABETHTOWN is kind of like a cake with far too many ingredients thrown in for its own good. The end result is a work that feels too bogged down by too many unnecessary elements for it to taste filling as an end result.
Again, if you compare this film to Braff’s GARDEN STATE, you easily see where he went right and where Crowe went wrong. GARDEN STATE was much more focused in terms of its underlying themes and characters. Ultimately, it was the story about Braff and Natalie Portman and how she acted as both the gatekeeper and soul guide to his re-emerging self-efficacy. Considering that Crowe is easily the more mature filmmaker to the novice in Braff (STATE was Braff’s first film), it’s discouraging to see how poorly Crowe fails to rein in the emotional epicenter of his film.
ELIZABETHTOWN has some potentially intriguing concepts and some generally interesting and congenial characters. However, the film is so endlessly rambling in terms of its narrative drive and just contains far, far too many divergent plot points and secondary and tertiary characters that lend nothing to the overall arc of the film. This film should have been largely about Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst. Well, it partially is, but it sort of sleep walks past them and provides needless dramatic asides with other characters and subplots that kind of feels pointless. Trust me – there is a really good film to be made here; it just needed a director to rein it all in with considerably more discipline.
Orlando Bloom plays Drew Baylor, a shoe designer who must, at the beginning of the film, fly home to Kentucky for his father’s funeral. Drew is not one of those happy-go-lucky, squeaky-clean protagonists that you find in these types of films. At least initially in the story, he contemplates suicide. Why? Because he just lost the company he works for nearly a billion dollars, $972 million to be precise (or as his boss describes it, the operating budget of some small countries in the world).
Drew is…or rather was…the designer of a shoe that, if the image of it says anything, should have never made it to final production in the first place, but never mind. The new shoe is from the wonderfully named Spasmodica line and it has proven to be the ultimate turkey product with massive recalls. The shoe was a “failure of mythic proportions”, at least as described by his boss, the wonderful Alec Baldwin, who just may be the best actor working today at playing CEO’s (here and in ALONG CAME POLLY and THE AVIATOR) or Army Generals (PEARL HARBOR). Baldwin gets a lot of laughs from his small part; perhaps in the subtle (and not so subtle) ways he reveals to Drew the colossal scope of his failed shoe line. Needless to say, Drew is out of work, incredibly depressed, and wants to kill himself in a manner that has to be described as stupid and unnecessarily painful. Two words of advice Drew – drug overdose.
Anyhow, just as Drew is about to do himself in he gets the call that his father has died and that he must return to ELIZABETHTOWN for the funeral. The townsfolk here have some really pent up hostility at some members of Drew’s clan, especially towards the mother, Hollie (in a wasted performance by Susan Sarandon). It seems that Drew’s dad was loved by all in the town and in came Hollie, who kind of “kidnapped” him away and took him to California for the rest of his life, despite the fact that she pleads, quite often, that they only lived there for less than two years. They have actually lived in Oregon for the remaining years that he was alive.
Cue cute girl with a heart of gold to save Drew – Claire - played in a somewhat endearing performance by Kirsten Dunst. She just might play one of the more annoyingly nosey airline flight attendants in movie history, probably so annoying that most patrons would have told her to bugger off in real life for her inquisitive nature, but not in a movie, as she is destined to woe over the depressed man. Okay, maybe since Drew is the only passenger on board she decides to talk with him. She does an awful lot for him on the flight – moves him up to first class, talks it up with him, tries to brighten him up, and even goes as far as to nearly stalk him off the runway and into the terminal. She gives him every conceivable contact number she has and when it appears that he has walked away and wants to leave, she continues to scream at him from afar. This moment is more creepy than romantic and adorable. She’s like one of those figures in a girlfriend from hell movie. She will meet and fall in love with this guy…or else.
Of course, after a busy day of offering condolences to the family (oddly, if you consider that he should be on the receiving end), Drew does call up Claire and, in one of the film’s only great scenes, they engage in an all-night cell phone call where their respective love for one another begins and blossoms. Despite the fact that I question the logic of this montage, it worked effectively. Considering the long amount of time (seemingly all night) where they talk on their phones, apparently uninterrupted, one would assume that their batteries would have died, but never mind. They talk and talk and talk about everything and their call ends with them meeting at dawn to get together to see the sunset. When they finally hook up, hang up their phones, and sit down to see the sunset, Claire amusingly reveals that maybe they were better off on the phone. Drew chuckles, and his emotional healing begins. Cue his reconnecting with his family and rediscovering of his lost love of his dad via the muse that is Claire.
Again, there is a good movie to really like here if you smooth over all of its decidedly rough edges. Cameron Crowe, no doubt, is a gifted screenwriter when it comes to characters and dialogue. Some of the individual moments have keen and funny insights (I especially liked one instance when Drew’s sister tells him to call her back ASAP -“Just dial HELL, and you’ll easily find me.” I also liked another moment of hilarity where some characters discuss what to do with Drew’s Dad (“Is there such a thing as partial cremation?”). Other times Crowe finds amusing ways to cut to the heart of matters, as when Claire tells Drew, “You are always trying to break up with me and we're not even together." Yet, other times Crowe’s often assured skills as a cinematic voice falls flat into contrived territory (i.e. - when Claire later tells Drew, “Just tell me you love me and get over it, okay?”). Sometimes, characters ramble on incessantly and endless about nothingness, so much so that I felt like I was watching a sequel to WAKING LIFE. It’s perfectly fine for characters to talk, but only if it leads to something inspired. Claire often babbles on to the point where she loses my interest.
And as for Claire herself? She is a likeable, but not an overtly realistic character. She seems too perfect and enigmatic of a person to be real. At least Portman’s role in GARDEN STATE was fleshed out as a person with real pains, fears, and woes, but Claire seems to exacting, too ideal, too faultless, and far too convenient. I say convenient in the sense that she always has the right thing to say at the right time and, despite the fact that she is a full-time flight attendant, she has an awful lot of free time to kind of show up at a moment’s notice and be there for Drew.
This, of course, leads me to the most exasperating element of the film, a final act where Claire has obsessively constructed and designed a cross country road trip. It comes complete with hand-drawn maps, instructions on where to go and what to see, and CD’s providing both mood music and Claire’s insights into Drew’s life. The CD goes as far as to tell him to go to one precise place, pick up one precise book in particular, find one exact note in it an follow its instructions to get to…well…maybe you see where this is going. This climax, which is so startlingly manufactured, contrived, and pretentious, rings so falsely that you just kind of throw up your hands in an incredulous sign of dissatisfaction. Not only that, but what if that damn book that he needed to get was sold?
Boy, there are other issues to deal with, like the way I watched this film from a hatchet’s perspective. You should never view a film and simultaneously figure out where you'd chisel and edit out material that proves to be largely erroneous. My head started spinning at the possible characters and subplots that could have been removed to make ELIZABETHTOWN a leaner and tighter work. For your consideration:
1. Remove many of the family members, like the aunt and uncle.
2. Get rid of the cousin figure and the problems he has with his own son, not to mention a developed subplot involving him and his old rock band that later performs at the memorial service…huh?
3. Completely eliminate Susan Sarandon’s glorified, self-indulgent stand-up routine at the film’s memorial, which lasts an immeasurably long 10 minutes and brings the whole film to an abrupt halt. For a woman that is poorly developed all through the film, Crowe's insistence at giving her a moment like that seems foolhardy.
4. Many of the scenes of dialogue go on endlessly. Many times, characters say far more than they really need to.
5. Eliminate Jessica Biel's role as a former fling to Drew. Eye candy? Yes. Worthy to the film's overall story? No.
Cameron Crowe, to his direct credit, is a great filmmaker. He made one of the best romantic films of 1989 in SAY ANYTHING with John Cusack and also made one of the best romantic films of 1996 in JERRY MAGUIRE with Tom Cruise, pre-Scientology/Katie Holmes nutbar period. His ALMOST FAMOUS was one of my favourite films of 2000, making my list or the best films of that year. Yet, as he proved with VANILLA SKY in 2001, Crowe needs to regroup and sharpen his skills as a storyteller. He is a competent filmmaker, to be sure, but he just needs to take great ideas and appropriately mould them.
ELIZABETHTOWN is enjoyable enough in small dosages (some of the writing is witty, as are some of the performances, albeit Orlando Bloom is a bit too bland and one note for a role as faceted as Drew’s), but it largely is too tedious in presentation and messy in construction for me to recommend. Not only that, buy maybe this is a genre that Crowe has mastered already. Maybe it's time for him to move on. He’s done typical romantic comedies of soul-searching twenty-somethings looking for love in films permeated by evocative dialogue and a swelling of rock tunes. Maybe he should follow Martin Scorsese’s route of examining the same themes he enjoys (in his case, New York) from a different lenses. Maybe Crowe could make a Victorian romantic comedy with Bob Dylan songs draining out the soundtrack.
Now that would be interesting.