There are two things Cameron Crowe knows undeniably, and those are classic rock and classic romance. Both are on display in abundance in his new movie, Elizabethtown, a joyous mess of a film that packs about three times as much content as it can possibly handle into its 123-minute running time, already trimmed 12 minutes from a cut that received poor notices last month at the Toronto International Film Festival.
You can't fault Crowe for his exuberance, which infects Elizabethtown with a winning sincerity that makes it hard not to like the film, even when it's headed in incredibly ill-advised directions. Crowe has always been a very personal filmmaker, putting a great deal of himself onto the screen, and it's led to wonderful, evocative expressions of emotion as in Almost Famous and Say Anything. Elizabethtown is perhaps Crowe's most personal film to date, inspired by the death of his father, and as such it has the hallmarks of the writer-director being too close to the material. In love with every idea he had about how to tell the story, he couldn't leave anything out.
Our Crowe stand-in is genius shoe designer Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), whose latest creation has just been deemed such a spectacular failure that it will cost his company nearly $1 billion. Reeling from his professional free fall and on the verge of suicide, Drew gets a call from his sister letting him know their father has just died of a heart attack while visiting family in the titular Kentucky town, and Drew has been enlisted to retrieve the body and bring it back to Oregon.
On his flight to Kentucky, Drew ends up the only passenger in coach and thus has plenty of time to chat with quirky flight attendant Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who serves up detailed directions to Elizabethtown that come with the side dish of her phone number. Overwhelmed by the sheer Southern hospitality of the relatives he barely knows, Drew finds refuge in a burgeoning relationship with Claire, even as she pleads an unseen, out-of-town boyfriend.
In the way that the death of a parent and the return to a small-town family home spark romance and self-discovery, Elizabethtown's plot shares a lot with Zach Braff's Garden State. But Crowe's film is both more ambitious and more lighthearted, although it's got the same soft spot for old-fashioned romance. That romance is the film's biggest strength, which comes as no surprise since it's Crowe's, as well. Even though Bloom is flat and charisma-free as Drew and Dunst's Claire is a nearly impossibly perfect fantasy girl, Crowe sells their giddy courtship scenes as genuine expressions of the rush of falling in love.
The love story winds up as only a small part of the movie's sprawling tapestry, though, and that's where things go awry. Crowe introduces too many narrative threads to properly follow and throws in characters like Drew's deadbeat cousin and a old con-man friend of his father's, both of whom seem to have their own stories to tell but just fade away. Even the main plot of Drew's coming to terms with his father's death meanders on longer than it should, with Crowe introducing a cross-country road trip that could have fueled a film of its own (and perhaps should have) in what should be the closing minutes of the movie.
Throughout the film, Crowe demonstrates his impeccable musical taste, cultivated during his years as a rock journalist, and as always, he has the right song for the right moment. His musical acuity is almost too good at times, though, eliding moments of potential character development or losing the opportunity for illuminating dialogue. Despite all of its flaws (watch out for an extremely uncomfortable monologue by Susan Sarandon as Drew's mom), Elizabethtown exudes heartfelt warmth and, as with any good romance, has you sighing with contentment right to the last kiss.