' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Elizabethtown

Thursday, September 11, 2008

My Great Movies: Elizabethtown

Critic-proof. A movie wherein critical reception has no bearing, wherein friends' coherent and often correct arguments are rendered meaningless. To me, Cameron Crowe's "Elizabethtown" is critic-proof. Few people I know liked it and reviews were generally unkind. Nathan Rabin of The AV Club devoted himself to a year long project in 2007 entitled "My Year of Flops" in which he re-watched and then offered commentary on films considered blatantly unsuccesful upon their release. The first film on his list was "Elizabethtown", though while labeling it a flop Rabin also called it "a heartfelt debacle of rare ambition, sincerity and vision." Maybe I just respect heartfelt debacles more than the next guy but despite "Elizabethtown's" flaws - and, yes, I'm aware of them - I can't really even see them when I watch it. It transcends good and bad. It cuts far deeper into my skin.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) has designed the Spasmotica, a shoe which will revolutionize the industry. Instead, of course, it is a horrendous failure, and so his boss (Alec Baldwin) calls him to his luxurious office for a tete-a-tete which ends with Drew's dismissal. "Success, not greatness, is the only god the world truly served," says Drew in voice-over as he walks out the door and determines to commit suicide. The fates, however, have a different idea in mind. He receives a phone call from his sister. Their dad has died. He was home in Elizabethtown, Kentucky when it happened and, thus, Drew is enlisted by his sister (Judy Greer) and mother (Susan Sarandon) to journey south and bring back his father.

Cue the obligatory love interest, flight attendant Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst). Ah, but since this is a Cameron Crowe film her cue will be accompanied by song - Tom Petty's "It'll All Work Out". She gives Drew a free seat in first class and proceeds to lather him up with words all night and draw a map directing him to his destination, complete with multiple phone numbers for herself. As he departs the airport she stands behind him shouting the interstate exit number he needs to take once, twice, three, even four times.

Roger Ebert deemed it the "most unrelenting Meet Cute in movie history." Rabin termed her "The Manic Pixie Dream Girl", and said such a character is "an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family." Judy Berman of salon.com also weighed in on Rabin's coinage, adding that characters such as "The Manic Pixie Dream Girl" are "exercise(s) in male wish fulfillment." Hey, Judy, I got news for you, Rhett Butler is nothing more than female wish fulfillment. Harlequin's been churning out wish fullfillment in print for eons. Springsteen's masterpiece "New York City Serenade" is wish fulfillment set to music. Hell, even Michael Bay movies fit the criteria in so much as they fulfill his endless wish to blow stuff up. But Cameron Crowe fulfills his wish and suddenly the whole world is ending.

Maybe you don't like Claire Colburn for who she is and that's fine, but I find the notion of a woman who wears Maker's Mark tee shirts and listens to Ryan Adams (and not just the alt-country stuff, mind you, but the art-rock weirdness of "Love is Hell", a CD you glimpse her holding) and professes the nobility of solitary cross-country road trips so forcefully carrying out a Meet Cute with me rather appealing. I like Claire. I do, and not least because at one point she says, "I like being alone too much." That's a line that sums me up and my attitude toward relationships and what more can you ask from movie dialogue?

Anymore movies seem content to offer us the main characters and maybe a couple people in support - usually the two best friends - but once Drew arrives in his dad's hometown Crowe offers up a rich smorgasboard of eccentric relatives who decry the Baylor family's idea of having their town's favorite son cremated and look down on their decision to reside in California "even though" - as Drew repeatedly points out to no avail - "we now live in Oregon". Yet there are others beyond the family tree, like the shady Bill Banyon (Bruce McGill) and the about-to-be-married Chuck & Cindy who turn the hotel where Drew is staying into some sort of commonwealth version of a Cancun resort. And let's not forget Drew's mom back home - Sarandon is deft and brilliant, as usual - who fixes the toilet and wages war with her car engine and then finally does turn up in Elizabethtown to face all those who have vilified her in a scene too rewarding, and unexpected, to give away.

Drew makes the most inroads with his cousin Jesse (Paul Schneider) whose now-defunct band Ruckus once "almost opened" for Lynyrd Skynyrd and now maintains a son Sampson with a mischievous streak. "You can't be buddies with your own kid," Jesse's father harshly explains and the look Schneider offers in response to this critique is simply priceless. I feel correlation with Jesse as well, his dreams of hitting it big and his unspoken resignation that he knows he won't.

Of course, it is inevitable that isolationist Drew, the son who didn't come home for Christmas and felt no passion or emotion for anything but a "beautiful shoe", will come to understand the importance of family and learn to both feel and love. The old saying, though, is it's not the destination, it's the journey. The journey Drew takes in "Elizabethtown", and the journey others characters take, offer the rewards.

Crowe has no desire to follow his plot from Point A to Point B. He makes many diversions, letting scenes and characters breathe, focusing in on whatever moments catch his fancy, and filling endless frames with unusual and rewarding dialogue. Notice the scene where Jesse is discussing his band with Drew and Drew follows up with, "And now you fix computers?" And Jesse responds by singing one of his band's song, as in this is more important than that. Yes, there are a few montages, and I often rail against the montage, but they're so much easier to stomach when set to "Summerlong" by Kathleen Edwards or "Big Love" by Lindsey Buckingham.

In the end - literally and figuratively - it all comes down to one, last journey. Drew's solo road trip, just him, his car and an explicit instructions from Claire detailing the voyage down to the minute and set to song. This passage is among the most luminous I have ever witnessed on a movie screen and was partially responsible for finally causing me to strike out and see "The Last of the Mohicans" filming locations in the Tar Heel State like I'd always dreamed.

One of the great myths perpetuated by the movies is the Life Changing Visit. Often you will see this happen during the course of a film character going home for the holidays or for a family reunion or, as in the case of "Elizabethtown", a funeral and while at home their life changes for the better and all in only a few days. Is the myth based at all on fact? I've gained some perspective when going home or for a visit or on vacation, or maybe I've made a small life decision, but has my life truly changed?

But so what if it's just a myth? People always say movies are meant for escape only to turn around and criticize other movies for not representing real life. So which is it?

I think it's important to believe lives can be altered in one felled swoop even if we know such an occurrence rarely happens (if at all). No, I don't expect to go somewhere I've never been and find both the meaning of life and true love with a girl who sees the Mississippi River not as Water Flowing South but as "Mark Twain's muse and Jeff Buckley's funeral bed", but I like to dream it's possible. Crowe's film is a poem to that dream's possibility. Below the surface of this movie beats the heart of a romantic, which means its heart beats just like mine. And that's why I'll always think of "Elizabethtown" as a masterpiece, no matter what anyone says.

3 comments:

Wretched Genius said...

I'm in with the majority. I thought it was Crowe's weakest film, and I'm including Vanilla Sky and Singles when I make that judgment.

hyperbole man said...

Wow. As someone who regards Nick Prigge as a brilliant asset to the world's creativity, this post makes me less likely to see "Elizabethtown" than I would have ever thought possible. I don't just want to not see it. I want to devote my life to the study of particle physics and quantum mechanics in an undoubtedly futile effort to invent time travel, all with the goal of going back in time and preventing this movie from being created, even if my life must be sacrificed.

Nicholas Prigge said...

Oh, come on, that's not what Joel Siegel would have said.