The Barenaked Archives: Elizabethtown

Elizabethtown was always one of my most anticipated movies for this year. So when negative word came back from Toronto, I was understandably worried and a little confused, especially since other reviews had been quite positive.

Since seeing it Tuesday night, I’ve come to two hypotheses that could explain the negative reviews.
1) This is a uniquely Southern movie, very much about the heartland of America, and if you don’t have much of a connection to this area of the country, you’re probably not going to get it.

2) All the critics are just cynics.

Elizabethtown is by no means perfect, or even close to it. However, despite its flaws, it’s sentimental and funny (oh boy, is it funny) and leaves you with warm fuzzies that feel like they were earned, not coerced.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is a suicidal shoe designer who’s just cost his company nearly a billion dollars, which results in him losing both his job and his girlfriend. Before he can carry out the deed, though, Drew gets a call that his father’s died and he must go to Kentucky and pick up the body. On the flight there, he meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a perpetually perky flight attendant who might be just the person Drew needs to help him reconnect with his life.

This is definitely a Cameron Crowe movie, so obviously the music is fantastic. It’s also very personal and optimistic, which could also be construed as self-indulgent and cloyingly sentimental if you’re more of the jaded and cynical type. This is a celebration of the little things that make life worth living, not the monetary success that can so easily be taken away.

There’s almost a sense of the surreal in the beginning of the movie when we follow Drew (who steadfastly repeats the mantra “I’m fine” although he’s clearly not) to his boss’s office in a complex that’s best compared to Xanadu. Alec Baldwin is deliciously fun in the beginning, as he manages to be both a disappointed fatherly mentor and a ruthless businessman who’ll hang you out to dry without any scruples.

A lot of people are wondering how Orlando Bloom will handle a role that doesn’t require some form of ancient weaponry or elf ears. This movie is about Drew’s inner journey from depression and the verge of suicide to the point where life might actually be worth living, which means he’s in just about every scene and a good part of the movie rests on his shoulders.

Bloom really pulls it off, right down to the American accent. He gets a chance here to show his chops more than in any other movie he’s done to date. It’s hilariously morbid how determined Drew is to commit suicide. Even this trip to Kentucky is, for him, nothing more than a delay of the inevitable. As a fish out of water, he perfectly portrays the overwhelming feeling a well-meaning Southern family can inflict on an unsuspecting newcomer. And, he’s got one of the funniest scenes in the movie after getting lost on his way to Elizabethtown.

Speaking of family, the scenes involving Drew’s family, especially the extended crew gathered in Kentucky for the funeral, were some of my favorites. The overpowering crush of family members, all of whom think you look just like somebody else in the family (be it a parent, cousin, or distant relative), is something those of us subjected to yearly family reunions will quickly recognize. The family is almost as important to the movie as the romance that probably comprises the most screen time.

The romance is a bit of an unorthodox one, something that comes from a chance encounter and blossoms into something more, starting with a marathon all-night phone call. Kirsten Dunst does well as the sweet and philosophical Claire, who really understands people and may know Drew better than he knows himself. But even so, her life’s not all sunny and roses and she needs rescuing almost as much as he does.

Crowe nails the setting, from the comment “Does it ever cool off?” to the noisy, noisy locusts that infest this area every summer. It warms the heart to see the South portrayed so honestly when Hollywood, for the most part, tends to ignore us. (The mere sight of Oklahoma City on a road map was enough to garner cheers from the audience at the screening.) We aren’t perfect, but we’re not a bunch of slack-jawed yokels.

However, like I said earlier, this movie has its flaws. There are some great logic-defying plot leaps, my personal favorite being the fork in the musical road map Claire gives Drew near the end of the movie. It is very self-indulgent, which might win some people over but will likely lose others. And despite being about death and suicide, it’s a surprisingly un-cynical movie, which could tickle some gag reflexes.

But, for some reason, I loved this movie despite all the faults, and this is coming from a self-professed cynic. Give Elizabethtown a chance. It may really surprise you.