Cameron Crowe does not make movies for cynics. If audiences are going to accept lines like “I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen” and “I was just nowhere near your neighborhood“, they must put aside their usual snark and just let Crowe’s verbose optimism overwhelm them until they submit while shouting, “OK! You’re right! The world is beautiful and Tom Petty sounds like America!” To watch a Cameron Crowe film is to feel alive and powerful. Your dreams are attainable, but even if you don’t quite make the cut, your story is still worth telling.
Crowe’s career has had the usual ups and downs: the great (Almost Famous), the middling, and those we do not speak of in polite company (Vanilla Sky). His latest, Aloha, opens this weekend, and the critics are not in love or like with it, to put it mildly. This is something of a trend for Crowe following his impressive run of hits with Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous, but if it began with Vanilla Sky, it was cemented by Elizabethtown. Divisive and mostly panned, the film even inspired the induction of a new term into the cultural zeitgeist. But what if it’s not as bad as you remember? Here are a few points I’d like you to consider.
It Means Well.
For a movie that starts with a suicide attempt and ends with a funeral, Elizabethtown is sweet and endearing. If a hug were to take film-form, it would be Elizabethtown. Yes, it is a little trite. Yes, the performances aren’t as strong as some other Crowe ventures (sure, he’s a couch jumper with a maniacal ever-present smile, but can anyone sell a line like Tom Cruise?). However, the charm, genius musical moments, and life-affirming spirit are all still there. It will never be remembered as Crowe’s best work, but the ire that it receives might be undeserved. Sometimes it is a relief to watch a small film about nice people trying to do good.
The Story of Loss and Being Lost is Universally Affecting.
Back when Elizabethtown was released in 2005, Orlando Bloom was poised to become The Next Big Thing. However, the world eventually decided that they really only liked him as an elf or a pirate, and he never reached the level of fame that his early career predicted. Elizabethtown was his big shot at being a leading man, and he doesn’t quite pull it off. However, his performance is still endearing. As Drew Baylor, a failed shoe designer who lost his company, $1 billion and lost his job, Bloom postpones his suicide attempt when he learns that his father has died and that he has to handle the cremation and memorial service. His sad puppy face cannot help but garner some goodwill, and his emotional journey and acceptance of his father’s death is deeply moving. Anyone who has lost someone close to them, especially a parent, can relate to the rudderless feeling that accompanies the absence. As Drew drives across the country, spreading his father’s ashes and finding some form of closure, audience members may find a bit of emotional catharsis as well.
Dissecting the Myth of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Along the way, Drew meets Claire, a bubbly flight attendant who offers a friendly ear. Kirsten Dunst is often cited as one of the biggest flaws in this film. Her Claire is the quintessential “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a girl existing only as a plot device and to show the protagonist (usually a morose young white man) how to truly live. This criticism isn’t unfounded, but I would argue that Dunst does well with the material she is given. She’s full of folksy advice and toothy smiles, and she tries her best to convince Drew (and the audience) that life isn’t so bad and good things are attainable after failure. Ultimately, this is Drew’s story, and she is just one of the many characters that are there to help him find his way. Pop-culture writer Nathan Rabin, who coined the phrase, has expressed regret for adding it to the pop-culture landscape, pointing out that while the term was created to expose sexist tropes, it itself became a sexist trope. Claire may not be the most progressive character, but the hate directed at Dunst’s performance might be a bit unfounded. Tell me that you wouldn’t want an incredible road trip map like the one she makes, and I will call you a liar.
The Soundtrack Is So Great.
As with all Cameron Crowe films, part of Elizabethtown‘s strength is in its excellent soundtrack. Two songs in particular permeate the film: “My Father’s Gun” by Elton John and “It’ll All Work Out” by Tom Petty. These songs perfectly encapsulate the feelings of loss, hope, and starting again that define this film. Also, My Morning Jacket, one of the greatest rock bands performing today, cameos as Ruckus, a Drew’s cousin’s Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band. As the band plays “Freebird” while the memorial services go up in literal flames, a classic Cameron Crowe moment is born.
Ten years after its release, Elizabethtown is worth a second viewing. Let this movie’s sunny optimism envelope you. Failure and grief are a part of life, but they are not the end of life. Allow yourself to be moved by Susan Sarandon’s tap dancing, pseudo-philosphical musings on who the collective “they” is, and of course, Chuck and Cindy: Lovin’ Life. Also, any movie that incorporates house demolition into child care cannot be wholly bad.