Just the sight of Susan Sarandon tap dancing at a hilarious memorial for her character’s dead husband made Elizabethtown worth seeing for me. Too bad almost everything else about filmmaker Cameron Crowe’s latest movie misses the mark of greatness by a mere hair’s breadth.
All the elements of a special film -- including likeable characters, genuine humor, unexpected romance and matters of life and death -- seem poised to break free here. But they don’t always gel. Still, Crowe (Almost Famous) deserves credit for trying. Inspired by his own feelings when his father died, Crowe wanted to make the type of movie his dad liked best. “A movie that could blend tears and laughter. . .that was his favorite combo,” Crowe explains.
While Elizabethtown succeeds in evoking a few tears and gentle laughter, blending them causes the most problem for the talented writer/director. The film follows Drew (Orlando Bloom), a young man on the brink of suicide because of a business fiasco, who receives news of this father’s death and must return to his dad's hometown for the funeral. On the journey there, he meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a beautiful, ultra-optimistic airline attendant who helps change his dismal outlook on life.
Crowe obviously knows that although a death in the family causes grief and suffering, the loved-one’s relatives can be very funny on such occasions. I think every family must have an amusing funeral story. At our house, we still chuckle about Grandma complaining that Grandpa didn’t look anything like himself lying in his casket in the funeral home, only to find out she was looking at the wrong body. Unfortunately, tying the grief and the fun together requires a delicate process which sometimes goes awry in Elizabethtown -- case in point, Drew discovering an “expression he’s never seen before” on the face of his father’s corpse, a scene that comes across as neither funny nor sad.
Playing a romantic couple, Bloom (Kingdom of Heaven) and Dunst (The Cat’s Meow) look fabulous, and they display an appropriate low-key chemistry when they first meet, one that heats up considerably as they spend more time together. To assist Bloom in preparing for his role, Crowe advised him to study classic relationship movies like The Apartment and The Philadelphia Story. Bloom claims this homework helped him get into the spirit of the type of film Crowe likes to make. “Movies like that aren’t about the visual effects and explosions -- they’re human stories about family, about life, about death,” he declares.
As for Dunst, she certainly appears to enjoy working with Bloom. “He’s not jaded at all,” she says. “He’s just so easy to be around because he’s a dork like me; neither of us had to try to be cool with each other. It was just so easy.”
Elizabethtown features much to admire. It’s an ambitious attempt by Crowe to create something artistic, meaningful and entertaining about bouncing back after failure and grief. Unfortunately, because he dedicated this film to his father, I think it was hard for Crowe to cut some of the scenes that needed trimming, such as Drew’s drawn-out road trip with his father’s ashes. And the wonderful background music sometimes takes over the film like a tail wagging the dog.
Speaking of music, Elizabethtown boasts one of the most delightful musical scenes of the year. Yes, you guessed it. It’s Susan Sarandon’s “Moon River” tap dance. Eat your heart out, Napoleon Dynamite.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated “PG-13” for language and some sexual references.)
UPDATE: The 2005 Hollywood Film Festival has named Sarandon "Supporting Actress of the Year" for her poignant and amusing performance in Elizabethtown.