He Had Me at Hello

A Cameron Crowe fan takes the long, strange trip to 'Elizabethtown'

And the lesser parts are so good here! My favorite "Cameron Crowe moment" in Elizabethtown involves--what else?--rock 'n' roll: A thirtysomething former drummer shows off memorabilia from his short-lived country-rock band called Ruckus. (They almost played a gig once at a big festival, where they were scheduled to appear after the reggae tribute to Tom Petty. Awesome.) Their reunion performance during the memorial for Drew's father is a fiasco that out-Taps Spinal Tap. (It involves a gigantic papier-mâché "freebird" that meets a cruel fate.) The scene is so dangerously absurd that it almost falls flat; instead, it injects the film with some much-needed energy. Likewise, Crowe lured me early on (he had me at "hello"?) with an all-night phone chat between the romantic leads, a scene involving nonstop true-to-life business--peeing while talking, cat box-cleaning, kitchen floor-sitting, bath-taking, world-problem-solving. (So real--and like nothing I've ever seen in a movie before.)

All these accoutrements are, for me, what sell a Cameron Crowe movie. (With Elizabethtown, they pretty much have to carry the whole show.) In fact, the siren details are endearing enough to seduce you into buying the entire package. But this you mustn't do, because while Crowe is great at small-scale authenticity, his big-picture messaging is not to be trusted as anything more than Hollywood fantasy.

First problem: Elizabethtown's lovers have no chemistry. It's amazing, in fact, how little sexual tension such attractive actors can have; you can almost hear the clunk when they kiss. And you have to wonder: Was this intentional? I mean, the characters fall in love on the phone; when they meet face to face, their excitement deflates. Claire completes her seduction of Drew in absentia, making a musical travel kit for his road trip back to the West Coast. What's up with that? Are we meant to root for these two or fear for them? Along these lines: Why does the pairing in Jerry Maguire feel more like a passionless surrender to domesticity than a heroic romantic leap? (Where would Crowe have gotten such notions of romance? His long marriage to Heart's Nancy Wilson seems pretty bitchin'.) Ultimately, we just don't care that much--and it doesn't much matter. Bloom is bland and brings almost nothing to his role. Dunst has to shoulder a lot of the movie, but you get the feeling she considers Claire a fairy-tale character akin to Penny Lane in Almost Famous. (I don't even blame her.)

Whole lotta love (but not much heat): Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst in 'Elizabethtown'
Paramount Pictures
Whole lotta love (but not much heat): Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst in 'Elizabethtown'

At his best, Crowe is a nearly androgynous writer-director. He gets inside the female POV with a wondrous pragmatism, especially with regard to men and sex: the awful dugout ("DISCO SUCKS") and abortion scenes in Fast Times , just about all of Jerry Maguire. The relationship stuff in Jerry is all shot from the female perspective, the business stuff from the male. (When was the last time you saw that in a movie?) And in Almost Famous, with the exception of Crowe's young rock-writer alter ego, the characters who actually matter, who do the emotional work of the film, are all female. (I can forgive the airbrushed quality of Kate Hudson's Penny Lane: Almost Famous is a childhood memory, not cinema vérité.)

Yet for all his understanding of women, Crowe remains fairly lousy at concocting a believable screen couple, one you could think might actually have legs. The kids in Say Anything... are doomed. (No guy, not even Lloyd Dobler can hang his entire identity on a girl without it eventually backfiring.) The couple in Jerry Maguire is a mismatch--sexually if not otherwise. And this Claire girl...well, she's unbelievable from the first frame. I appreciate a male director attempting to subvert the whole starlet thing, but Claire ends up weirdly sexless in the process. She's too perfect--or else she's crazy. She's always there; she knows just what to say; she has an amazing record collection; and, based on her knowledge of geography and musical landmarks, I'd guess she used to work for Alan Lomax. She's good in a crisis, she's attractive but not threatening, and she has endless patience for Drew's stalling; she doesn't mind being put on hold for another girl, either. She's an American Amélie without the sex appeal--or Annie Hall without the edges. And who wants Annie Hall without the edges? Note to Cameron: Bring on the live lobsters.

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