Elizabethtown

Despite moments that will light you fiercely from within, “Elizabethtown” finds Crowe trolling in weirdly well-trod territory.

Drew Baylor is having a career crisis most of us could not even have a nightmare about: at only twenty-seven years old he is seeing his life’s work go down in flames. The sneakers he designed for the megacompany he’s employed by, which he’s worked on for eight years, have been recalled, and this disaster will cost the business one billion dollars. The weight of the failure will be Drew’s boulder to pull (he alone is taking the hit for the company), and when he leaves work that day, fired and ruined, even his in-office girlfriend dumping him, he has only one thought: suicide. The thought is a freeing one. After ridding himself of his possessions (TV, DVD player, etc.), he rigs his long-dormant stationary bike with a Ginzu knife: technological hari-kari.

A phone call stops the deed, and the news gets even worse: his father, who was visiting relatives in Kentucky, is dead. Since his mother doesn’t like the people there and his sister has a kid, it is Drew’s job to go there and get his father’s remains. He meets a flight attendant on his way over, an attractive woman named Claire, and her insistent good nature and bonhomie cut through his depression enough for her to glimpse inside him, and make her fall just a little bit in love. They soon separate and he’s in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and he wakes up to a new reality: an alien landscape that he doesn’t recognize, though his genes are in abundant supply: this is a world his father existed in that he knows nothing about.

Drew gets caught up in their chaos, soon retouches with Claire, and swims upstream against the tide of issues: whether to cremate his father like his mother wants or to bury him in his family plot like his friends want; figure out who his father really was, in the eyes of these people he does not know; navigate the loud, unfamiliar-to-him surroundings, fall into their zeal, without going insane; and connecting with Claire, who’s elusive yet chronically revealing.

Buried in Crowe’s overstuffed-though-underwhelming script is a great, touching, affable, funny, emotionally satisfying romance. But around that, like mold, you’ll find a lot of extraneous material that simply takes you nowhere.

I think what Crowe is saying with this script is that our current big-city, corporate society and workforce is distancing us more and more each day, and that in life you really need to stop worrying, you really need to take risks if you want to find happiness, and you better embrace the vicissitudes and lack of order that comes with our existence. These aren’t exactly new or exciting ideas. And Drew’s stay in Kentucky feels like Crowe’s journal entries (he has family there) — the observations about food and culture, which he appears to find fascinating, never really rise above their seemingly autobiographical trappings. The significance of it all remains unreachable for us because we do not have Crowe’s familial bonds. The characters in Kentucky aren’t cliche, exactly, but only because they’re not really deep enough for that. Drew’s cousin Jessie has a kid he can’t keep a handle on, and it’s clear that Jessie is a kid with a kid. And even though that’s of puddle-depth, psychologically speaking, I think Jessie is probably the Elizabethtown resident you get to know the best. Drew’s father had a lot of friends and family, and while Crowe adores showing us how they live there, he’s not very interested in letting us know who they are. He loves them too much to turn them into backward buffoons. But even that, at least, would have shown some sign of a pulse. And where, exactly, among all this gazing-into-the-past, elegiac eulogizing, is the exploration of how Drew felt about his fatherr

Crowe writes Drew’s mom, Hollie, as the most high-strung woman on the face of the planet. She fences with her grief by embracing things she always wanted to do but didn’t. Cooking, dancing, comedy, etc. Hollie’s character is so over the top and hysteria-shaken that I couldn’t help but think of Jessica Walter in “Arrested Development.” She shows back up in Elizabethtown to confront the people who accused her of stealing Drew’s father away from them. She gets onstage and does a comedy act. Its meaning seems to be “live life day by day and have fun.” Crowe has as much contempt for these city characters as he has reverence for the country people. He wouldn’t satirize them, but he does just that to the mother and sister — satirizes them right into cartoonishness.

Cut away all that fat, and you have an amazing connection between Drew and Claire. This muted, glorious replication of reality, where you feel that enchanting magnetic pull between two people. There’s a scene, one of the best I’ve ever read, where they’re talking on the phone all night (after seeing a wedding party Drew feels utterly lonely and calls her out of desperation) about every conceivable topic and they keep saying “Well, I’ll let you go,” and then something new comes up and they can’t stop and they’re doing laundry while they talk and clandestinely going to the bathroom and wandering around, the phone pressed to their ears so long they start to hurt. And the whole experience is bright surprises. You fall into this comfortable embrace. You found someone, you’re shocked to realize, that thinks just like you. Has the same sense of humor. And this person is really a stranger. But you can’t stop yourself from disclosing everything there is about you. Crowe handles this scene like a poet. I felt like he plucked it straight out of my memories. It’s something we’ve all experienced — not just the phone call and not just the conversation, but that click of something that feels right — and that’s what Crowe does so well: he gives us that starry, cute, Hollywood romance stuff, but in a way that is so true and honest, so attuned to his characters and to the small details of reality, that we’re instantly involved in something that feels intimate and genuine.

Crowe made me fall in love with Drew and Claire (not necessarily individually, but together), but even they don’t fully escape some dents. Claire is clearly Penny Lane (Kate Hudson’s character from “Almost Famous”) all over again. That spunky spirit whose unending optimism can tunnel through anything. The relationship between Drew and Claire is essentially the same one between William and Penny in “Almost Famous,” only this time it’s the girl who wants the boy. And once again we find a free-spirited girl unlocking the soul of a careful, plan-carrying male (which seems to be the grid for every romantic comedy these days). In the end, though you want them to be together and they’ve charmed you, you can’t help feeling that Drew and Claire are really Crowe remaking “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The complexity of their relationship is really no deeper than that.

“Elizabethtown” is a script about a guy whose life is shattered and who leaves the hermetic box of his life to see that there is more to the world than he knew. Along the way he meets a woman who changes his life forever. And while it’s all hokey and Hollywood-happy-ending sappy, it has the warmth and familiarity of a hug. Which makes Drew’s time in Kentucky all the more tragically meaningless. Crowe wanted to tell the tale of a handful of interesting people. He didn’t quite get there. Drew and Claire make your inner cynic wither and die, but around them you’ll find what feels like bad studio comedy fare: unfunny jokes and gags that give the script an overburdened, messy feel.

Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom have been cast in the leads. If Crowe is able to slim this thing down, and make it less about Kentucky culture and more about humans sparking, maybe, as with “Say Anything” (which this resembles in small ways), he’ll have something that will make moviegoers remember his characters not just on the drive home from the film, but for the rest of their lives. Maybe. This script is dated March of 2003. The film will be released sometime in 2005.

Rating: B
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