Film Talk · Making a case for...

Making a case for…Elizabethtown

I’d forgotten how much dislike there was/is for this film until I re-watched it and glanced at IMDB to check the trivia and a couple of cast members and spotted the reviews. I planned to write a ‘Making a case for’ on this film since I started the blog as it’s one I want to defend but also to promote as it’s a generally under seen film. 

It’s actually one of my favourite films to watch when I need to be cheered up, or to smile. It shouldn’t be dismissed as just a frothy, feel-good film though. There’s more to it if you’re willing to give it a go. It’s not one of the best films ever, or a masterpiece, but it deserves more than being torn to shreds.

For those who haven’t seen this 2005 Cameron Crowe film, the title refers to the place Elizabethtown, in Kansas. Our lead character, Drew, is a man having a bad day. He’s lost a huge amount of money for the company he works for who are going to publish his failure countrywide and throwing away his belongings, he genuinely plots to end his life using a makeshift killer exercise bike. His plans are scuppered by a phone call, his sister in need of him to be the big brother again. Sudden family commitments pull him back to the place his Father was born and so he has to go there and reconnect with the family. It’s a sort of road movie about family, pride, success versus failure, love and rediscovering the joy in life. Orlando Bloom stars as Drew; the film also features Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin and Paul Schneider.

The opening sets the tone and that tone is a little kooky, somewhat disjointed. I think you’re either on board with it or you’re not very early on, so I get why not everybody got on with this film. For me, it worked though. This has humour, but it’s a sometimes dark kind of humour. Seemingly though that’s my kind of comedy as I chuckled and laughed at this far, far more than in ‘Sausage Party’. Our narrator to get us up to speed and give us a viewpoint is Drew. We hear it more as his inner monologue and there’s a brilliant line early on “You know the way people look at you when they believe it’s for the last time? I’ve started collecting these looks.”

Again, much of whether or not this film works for you is how you feel about Bloom and his dialogue. Bloom is a mixed actor for me. I’ve enjoyed him in ensemble casts, like Lord of the Rings for example, but not necessarily so much as a leading man. I do believe him and enjoy him in this though, it helps that Crowe wrote the role for him, meaning it fits better. There’s one particular scene, in a funeral parlour with Elton John singing over it, that sums up Bloom’s performance. It’s a particularly effective scene, and a key one too. Again, I seem to disagree with the majority of people here.

Kirsten Dunst is just brilliant in this. This film is where the tag of ‘manic pixie dreamgirl’ came from and countless other writers and directors have done their own incarnations of Dunst’s Claire. Personally, I feel that does a slight disservice to the character and the way Kirsten plays her but I understand it to a degree. Yes she’s probably a little too perfect to be real, but she’s also flawed. She lets others hurt her by being too nice and too open. She’s a hopeless romantic but so am I a little so maybe this is why I can connect to her. The three word description just simplifies a significant role both in the film and for our leading man too much for me.

She’s an incredibly warm character, one who chooses to see the good and the joy in everything. True maybe nobody is quite that happy and oddball but I thought it went with the tone of the film. She senses things about Drew before he confesses them and she tries her best to ease his journey while also providing the thing he most needs. Ok so sometimes she says clichéd things but this is fiction, I can go with it.

The very custom road map kit she gives him towards the end is brilliant. For me it anchored her somewhat as a character who does want to settle down and commit. I’ve seen that somebody has put together a route you can follow to cover off the places and things she sets Drew up for which I would love to do one day. There’s something that never fails to captivate me about American road trips. The road trip sequence is a highlight of the film and ties us through to an ending that felt pretty great to me as I’d been rooting for out that outcome (and contrary to many, I do think Bloom and Dunst had great chemistry!). This section of the film may well be the best and it’s Crowe’s love letter to this fascinating part of the country.

The film serves as a reminder that sometimes somebody can come along, when you’re not looking, and show you something new, reset your views and open you up to new experiences. For Drew, Claire shows him a new perspective, she helps him to reconnect with his family and his Father, with that part of the country. Perhaps the film simplifies the issue of Drew having been so set on killing himself, implying that one perfect woman can be a saviour. I choose to see it as a little more complex than that, his issues haven’t suddenly gone away, but he seems better equipped to tackle them, has a view that it’s worth the effort and that it can be done. Her presence allows Drew to spend some time alone, travelling, exploring and ultimately rediscovering himself. He gets the opportunity to actually grieve the loss of his father on the road trip. Yes, Claire helps him, perhaps gives him the pushes and tools he needs, but the change still comes from him. I’m not sure this would be the poster film for exploring mental health as despite the opening, it moves away from talking about it, but it is an underlying theme.

The supporting cast deserve some credit too. Susan Sarandon is just great as Drew’s mother, trying to deal with grief and family in her own way. Even more so when you consider what she’s given to do/say isn’t the best. She’s humorous and warm and her speech towards the end, and subsequent on-stage number, are brilliant in their own way. You have Judy Greer who I just love as the sister and then early on in the film you have Alec Baldwin being…Alec Baldwin playing Drew’s boss. Dramatic, pause-heavy delivery and weighted words that are ridiculous but actually quite funny. He has his own brilliant lines. Paul Schneider as the cousin is inspired, if not slightly underused in the end. His lone “This loss will be met by a hurricane of love” is cringe-worthy for a near opening line. Did I mention there’s a small bit of the wonderful Paula Deen too? Cooking nonetheless. Oh yeah!

It’s not a film that broke any ground with its cinematography but I rather liked the look of it. The way it paints its landscapes and places is fitting and there are some good shots in it. I hadn’t really realised until re-watching this for the first time in a little while how much of a good companion piece ‘Up In The Air’ would make. Yes, the element of travel is the obvious comparison, however, both feature men who are ultimately going through the motions. For UITA’s Ryan it’s the constant travelling, the seminars. For Elizabethtown’s Drew it’s the ‘I’m fine’ every time somebody looks at him. The having spent eight years of his life on something that is suddenly no longer there. Both are lost and in need of something, though what they find is not quite what they’d expected. Airport and hotel scenes are aplenty in both films. Both have a party crashing scene where characters connect over stolen alcohol. I’m going to have to do this as a double bill at some point. You’d probably want Elizabethtown to be the second as the end of UITA isn’t the happiest, so this would cheer you up.

The soundtrack to Elizabethtown is key. Perhaps similar to how I felt about Up In The Air, it’s not music I’d be regularly listening to by choice, but it’s very in keeping with the film, the locations and the themes. There’s a lot of music because it’s one of the things Drew and Claire connect over. Her aforementioned custom map features CDs packed full of music that she’d picked, ordered and set to match where he was and what he was doing (it’s a bit too neatly done unless you literally did the drive while listening and timed it but hey, again, I can let that slide). The people responsible for picking it did a good job. The aforementioned use of John Elton fairly early on works particularly well. Yes, some of it can be accused of being sentimental to go with the plot (see the Ryan Adams phone montage bit) but hey, it still works!

The loudest message I took away from this is that family really is so important. So are doing the things you talk about doing that seem to constantly get put on hold because of time or money. I’m a huge family person anyway so it didn’t take much for that aspect to reach me, but it handles it well. It doesn’t sugar-coat that sometimes we let relationships with family fizzle out and often we don’t really know them very well. Drew discovers and gets to know family he never really knew. He may not see eye to eye with them but a mutual respect forms and by the end, he’s almost a little sad to go back home. The road trip he takes in the end was something he’d been meaning to do since he was a boy. Far too soon for my liking, I’ll be turning 30 and myself and my boyfriend have decided that marks a time to finally do one of the things we’ve talked about since we got together (almost six years ago) and take a 2-3 week trip to America/Canada and do some of the places we’ve been meaning to do. Watching this again made me realise we have to do it, no compromises.

I realised on this latest venture back to the film, just how of its time it was. You couldn’t make the same movie in a current setting now. 2005 was before things like satellite navigation, built-in MP3 players and phones that did everything were around. Heck, even Claire and Will spending the entire night just talking on the phone probably wouldn’t even be believable now unless it was changed to Facetime or messaging. The romantic parts of the film, and even the very DIY (actual maps, you know, the ones you fold and handwritten instructions) stuff wouldn’t really be believable without shifting the era back. For me, this movie is packed with good memories and makes me want to travel and just get some joy back.

So why so much hate? I don’t think this being after ‘Almost Famous’ helps. That’s Crowe’s best, and most loved film. Look this is an unconventional kind of film. It’s flawed and the dialogue isn’t perfect, but I find something in it that I really enjoy. So if I manage to convince any of you to watch this, or give it a second go, please let me know. It’s very lonely in my party of one who actually write about liking this movie.


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