He Had Me at Hello

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

Sometimes a movie just gets to you. It opens your eyes for a moment to the possibilities of love and life, reminding you what a weirdly artificial, hermit-crab shell-of-the-mind you've been living in. It challenges you to walk out of the theater and do something bold--knock over a trashcan, bust open the doors of perception, something like that.

Elizabethtown, Cameron Crowe's latest romantic comedy, did that to me. The thing is--and it has happened before with Crowe--I knew exactly what he was doing. Sure, for a good hour or so I held out the possibility that he would take this relationship in a different emotional direction than he did in his previous films. (I'll leave Vanilla Sky out of it, since that was a remake.) But he didn't. I could hear the clicks as he pushed the buttons, and feel the shudder as the cranks kicked into gear. This is hardly the subtlest of romantic buildups. And the couple, played by Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst, is perhaps the least believable of any Crowe has invented. Still, because Crowe went all out with it, because something genuine and maybe even a little desperate shone through all the cracks in character and plot, I was moved--by the neediness of the attempt, by the way Crowe reaches out at the end of the film and essentially asks the world to be more beautiful.

Afterward, I walked out of the theater and did something risky. And I flopped. (Let's just say I didn't complete him.) Apparently real life is not a Cameron Crowe movie. Real people are not Cameron Crowe people. And so I have learned another lesson about the power of cinema: Avoid heavy machinery while under the influence of an insinuatingly whimsical, pseudo-realistic, musically savvy, semi-hip urban romantic comedy with an inspiring message about the beauty of existence. (Would I do it all again? Probably.)

Plot-wise, Elizabethtown is a retread of Crowe's Jerry Maguire, more or less, with some father-son stuff thrown in. You have the self-involved West Coast yuppie (Drew, played by Bloom). You have his emasculating career crisis, though Crowe humorously ups the ante this time: Instead of merely being fired like Jerry, this guy gets fired and costs his company a billion dollars. (He's a shoe designer whose highly conceptual new running shoe, called Spasmotica, gets recalled.) You have the career-climbing about-to-be-ex-girlfriend with whom he actually has some chemistry (Jessica Biel). You have the wacky supporting character--this time it's his mom, played by Susan Sarandon. You have the hero's journey of self-discovery: a trip to his ancestral home in Kentucky, where his father has just died unexpectedly while visiting relatives. (Most of the film takes place in Kentucky.) And finally, you have the girl: Claire (Dunst), a perky people-person flight attendant who helps our boy get through this challenging time.

I know I sound cynical, but Elizabethtown is packed with charm. That's how it does its evil work of turning suckers like me into cheesy flops.

 

FromFast Times at Ridgemont High (which he scripted) through Elizabethtown, Crowe's films betray a sympathy for human strangeness and suffering, although they rarely delve deeply or directly into the muck of it. You sense that those emotional depths are there, maybe just outside the frame--like the boom mic that appears during a front-porch scene in Jerry Maguire. Sometimes the depths are suggested by the better actors (e.g., Frances McDormand in Almost Famous), more often by music.

Watching a Crowe film, I want to blow on it somehow, as if to coax its glowing ember of whimsy and truth into a raging fire of weirdness, courage, and authenticity. I want his movies to be more rock 'n' roll, more like the music he chooses for them. The guy gets certain details so absofuckinlutely right on you actually go, Shit, I can't believe no one has ever made that joke or observation before in a movie. These moments of truth are a tonic to the Hollywood-battered movie fan; it feels healthy to see something close to the aesthetic and emotional subtleties of everyday life acknowledged on the big screen. Woody Guthrie said he didn't like any music that made people feel small, and part of Crowe yearns for that ethic, too.

His respect for music--rivaled in movies only by Tarantino and Alison Anders--is part of the "realness" of his films. Sure, Crowe can use pop music as wallpaper, but he also grasps the way it entwines itself in our relationships, memories, and identities. (Why more directors don't get this and exploit it is a mystery to me.) And then there are those subplots and side characters. Crowe's main plotlines, while thematically essential and sometimes great, often lack the pizzazz of his detours. (The enduring catchphrase from Say Anything... isn't "friends with benefits"; it's "Joe lies.") This has never been more true than it is in Elizabethtown, for better and worse. Crowe has confessed admiration for Pulp Fiction's ensemble cast and symphony of subplots, but it seems he's still working to find the right balance between competing elements. In Elizabethtown, he attempts a solution by entangling the main story--one man's quest to bury his father--in those of the other characters. With a stronger actor in the lead, that kind of jumble might have worked--might have been brilliant, come to think of it.

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.)

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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