Sunday, October 16, 2005

Southern Charm

I believe it’s impossible (okay, nearly impossible) for Cameron Crowe to make a bad movie. He loves his work too much to let that happen.
But there are times when an artist can be so infatuated with his material, his idea, his method, he drowns in it. That almost describes Crowe’s latest film, “Elizabethtown.”
It’s a meandering picture, and I don’t have a problem with that. Too many filmmakers do half-baked rush jobs of their movies, so I don’t mind someone taking his time to tell a story. But right about the time Susan Sarandon is tap dancing on a stage during a memorial service for her dead husband, I had just about had enough.
Then the film enters its final act—more of a coda, really—and totally redeems itself.
But first things first.
“Elizabethtown” is Crowe’s first movie in four years, a follow-up to the critically reviled “Vanilla Sky” (which I happened to really like). It stars Orlando Bloom as Drew Baylor, a rising star athletic shoe executive who’s just flamed out on a billion-dollar bust of an idea. Thinking his life is literally over, things take an even steeper turn for the worse when Drew returns home from being fired only to find out his father has died in his boyhood home of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Now the only man of the family, Drew has to go “take care of things.”
On the plane flight to Louisville, Drew meets spritely flight attendant Claire Colburn, played to ethereal perfection by Kirsten Dunst, who seems never to disappoint these days no matter the material. Claire’s profession brings her in and out of contact with thousands of people, spinning into their orbits for a few hours at a time. There’s something different about Drew, though, and she does her best not to let him get away.
When he first arrives in Kentucky, Drew is overwhelmed by his father’s large, loud Southern relatives. But as the movie rolls on (and with a little help from Claire), he begins to see why his father loved them so much, and how they helped shape the man his father became—even if he did move to the West Coast with a woman who, gasp, didn’t grow up in Kentucky. Crowe treats these people with respect, writing about them out of love, not mockery. Where most scripts use a token gun-toting, beer-swilling Southerner as a punch line, Crowe gets us to laugh with them, not at them. He has a way of writing and shooting a movie that is unlike anything else you’ve seen—sort of out-of-left-field funny and tender at the same time. Like I said, he loves his material.
And what would a Cameron Crowe movie be without a killer soundtrack? During an ingenious scene where Drew and Claire get to know each other by pulling an all-nighter via cell phone, Ryan Adams’ beautiful “Come Pick Me Up” blasts through the speakers. A song about wanting—and needing—someone to blow your world apart just so the two of you can put it back together again is simply perfect here.
“Elizabethtown” is a movie a lot of people are going to hate—just read the majority of the reviews (by the way, nearly all negative ones had the word “mess” in them—did the nation’s critics have a conference call I missed or something?). Sarandon is miscast, an actress too “big” for such an intimate film; her scenes are rather painful, and not in a good way. Bloom stumbles in spots as well, but proves he can play a part that doesn’t require a sword or medieval dress.
Just stick with this movie through to the end. “Elizabethtown” is like a Bruce Springsteen song: Full of romanticized hopes and dreams, yes, but hopes and dreams that make us aspire to reach for the unreachable and in so doing, maybe improve ourselves just a little bit. It has a lot to say about taking time out (away from work or anything else we deem “important”) to love someone and live life. And it does so in such a way as to show us how lucky we are to live in this beautiful country, with all of its hidden quirks and charming people.
Who doesn’t need that reminder now and then?
Grade: B+

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