Elizabethtown (EdwardHavens)

No one does this special brand of magic realism as well, and like his best films, “Elizabethtown” wraps us up with a warmth not unlike a favorite sweater or comforter.

I must admit, when the film was first announced, with Ashton Kutcher in the lead role, I had my thoughts Crowe had lost his mind. The character of Drew Baylor was about as opposite of the spectrum from the dit-witted pretty boy Kutcher specializes in. Leonardo DiCaprio would have been a better and more interesting choice. Kutcher’s “That 70s Show” co-star Topher Grace the same. But based on the overall excellence of Crowe’s previous personal films (“Almost Famous,” “Jerry Maguire,” “Singles” and “Say Anything…”), one has to the man knew what he was doing. Maybe the Kutch made a connection with the filmmaker at the audition, with Crowe seeing something that would prove the young man to be more than just a goofball but a serious actor who has had everyone fooled all along. But, for reasons only known to a select few, Kutcher and the production parted ways, and Orlando Bloom was brought in. An interesting choice, to be certain, but while Kutcher might not have seemed right from the outset, at least he was an American, from the Midwest, about 500 or so miles from Elizabethtown. Did we really need yet another Brit passing himself off as a Yank with a really bad Southern drawlr No, we really did not, and thankfully Bloom doesn’t really even attempt any accent. (This is more than can be said for his co-star, Kirsten Dunst, whose Kentucky twang falls in and out without warning.) Bloom here is the Every Man, very much in the style of Jack Lemmon (Crowe’s admitted template for the character), which is one of the many reasons “Elizabethtown” is so easy to fall in love with.

When we meet Drew Baylor, his life is in trouble, having fallen from the top designer at a Portland-based shoe company not unlike Nike to sacrificial goat in a nanosecond, when one of the shoes he has created becomes the greatest flop the shoe industry has ever seen. (Alec Baldwin, in a hilarious cameo as the Phil Knight-ish CEO of Mercury Shoes, estimates their losses at just under one billion dollars.) And in case Drew didn’t get his life was in the crapper, he learns that evening his father Mitch has just passed away while visiting family in his old home town of Elizabethtown, and has been elected by his mother (the ever radiant Susan Sarandon) and sister (the fetching Judy Greer) to fly from Oregon to Kentucky to represent their side of the family, who has not gotten along very well with the late man’s side. On a red-eye flight from Portland to Louisville, inexplicably on a 747 jumbo jet with a mere two passengers (is Crowe trying to make a coy political statement about why the airlines might constantly find themselves in bankruptcy these daysr), Drew meets Claire (Dunst), an overtly eager and disturbingly friendly flight attendant who recognizes in Drew a kindred spirit, and finds unusual ways to keep ingraining herself into his life. After a comic adventure trying to get to Elizabethtown from Louisville (which shouldn’t be too hard, since one simply needs to hop on the I-65 right at the Louisville airport and drive an hour right into Elizabethtown), kindred spirits guide Drew in the proper direction to the funeral home where his father’s body lays, and where many of his kin eagerly await the return of Mitch’s successful boy (it seems the failure of Drew’s shoe will not be public knowledge until the day after his father’s burial service, via an article about the debacle in a major business magazine). Over the next several days, Drew will find love and support from a wide variety of strangers, new friends and old family, and discovering his view of the world radically changed.

A telling line in the film sums up what “Elizabethtown” is very well. Drew and his cousin Jessie (Paul Schneider) are enjoying a late night beer, as their discussion turns to talk of their fathers. Jessie asks Drew how well he knew his father, Drew rambles on about how much he really knew his dad and Jessie replies “Yeah, I don’t know my father very well, either.” It is one man’s journey to discover the father he never really got to know. A journey Crowe himself made shortly after the release of his first film, and one that many of us still need to take. Crowe films speak of personal journeys that speak to many of us, even if we might not have consciously recognized it when we step into the theatre or pop the disc into our DVD player.

Which is also a part of the problem of all Cameron Crowe films. Clear cut patterns are starting to emerge. Drew Baylor has parallels with Jerry Maguire (a fall from grace, losing his position in his profession and his girlfriend), with William Miller (a cross-country trip which alters his perceptions of his world), and with both Lloyd Dobler and Steve Dunn (Pacific Northwesterns with slight self-confidence issues). And like all these Crowe men who came before, Drew Baylor makes his goes through his life-altering moments with the most perfect woman in the world. Diane Court, Linda Powell, Dorothy Boyd and Penny Lane all represent not just the best women for each of their men but feature many of the qualities most men look for in their women. They’re all beautiful, patient, philosophical, understanding and almost always upbeat about life no matter how bad things get in their lives (Penny’s suicide attempt none withstanding). Our Claire perfectly fits in with this group, and is even a stewardess like William Miller’s sister. And as should be expected, “Elizabethtown” features a remarkable collection of music, like the best mix tapes you’ve ever received from your best friend, who always knew what you needed to hear when you needed to hear it the most.

This kind of familiarity might breed contempt in those who find such sentimental stories to be self-indulgent hokum, angry at the attempts to manipulate their emotions with such maudlin schmaltz. But what’s wrong with allowing yourself to let a movie take you away from your own worries for a few hours and make you feel better about the world you live inr Isn’t that one of the reasons we go to the movies in the first placer

Practically anyone can be thrown into an action film and find some level of… well, if not “success,” at least some level of achievement. Brian Bosworth, Howie Long and Dennis Rodman were hardly the worst thing about the films they starred in, but there is a reason so few action stars ever cross over into comedy or drama. After a history of battling Orcs, pirates, Greeks and Crusades-era Muslims, it was entirely possible Orlando Bloom could not cut it in a role that required softness and rationality. Happily, Bloom proves to be an exceptional actor, carefully crafting a restrained performance which is amongst the best of the year. This kid proves he is the real deal, worth all of the press given to him during his brief cinematic career, one that should last for many years to come. Kirsten Dunst isn’t really required to be much more than cheerful and thoughtful, and gently nudge our hero in the right direction when need be. With her winsome demeanor, all Dunst has to do is smile widely and brightly and you’re in love with her. Always seeming older than she really is, even from her early days in “Interview with the Vampire,” it’s easy to accept Dunst as this pillar of wisdom. The entire consensus of the supporting cast is top notch, especially Susan Sarandon as Drew’s grieving mother (as if Sarandon is capable any more of not giving a winning performance), Bruce McGill as a shady former friend of Mitch Baylor, and the Food Network’s Paula Deen, making her film debut as Drew’s aunt Dora, always ready with comforting food and a warm story. Only Jessica Biel is a misstep in the film, although not through any fault of her own. Her Ellen, practically a young clone of the Kelly Preston character in “Jerry Maguire,” is given far too much importance when in fact her character is really not required at all. Drew losing his company $972 million, finding himself unemployed and finding out his father has died is enough distractions for him, and Ellen’s few scenes have her doing little more than just stand there.

There’s a good chance a number of loose threads will be tied up when the inevitable Director’s Cut DVD is released, and “Elizabethtown” will, like “Almost Famous,” be transformed from a very good film into a masterwork. But for now, despite its recognizable faults, you should still be swept away by this beautiful, manipulative, whimsical, sappy, charming film.

Rating: A-
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