In 2005, the new film from writer/director Cameron Crowe was a highly anticipated event. His Almost Famous follow-up Vanilla Sky was an odd sojourn into psychological thriller territory, but with its Middle America setting and central love story, surely Elizabethtown would be a return to form. Unfortunately, reviews were unkind and the movie failed to catch on in a significant way with audiences. But while the film has issues (Orlando Bloom being miscast is its most glaring offense), it’s unfairly viewed as a failure in Crowe’s career when in fact it’s a film with plenty of merit.
One of the things that Crowe absolutely nails in Elizabethtown is his portrayal of the American South. It’s not a clichéd or glib portrait of “small town livin’,” but instead comes off as earnest and kind. Crowe takes his time in these scenes, and while Bloom’s Drew Baylor is positioned as the fish-out-of-water through which the audience gets to know the “non-California Baylors,” John Toll’s warm cinematography and Crowe’s jovial staging of the Kentucky-set sequences go a long way towards immersing audiences in this particular atmosphere.
And that soundtrack, man. There’s no way Crowe’s ever going to top the Almost Famous soundtrack (it doesn’t get much better than the early 70s rock music world), but Elizabethtown is almost like a modern, Southern companion piece to that film’s tracklist. Crowe culls together a wholly evocative yet eclectic mix of songs from folks like Tom Petty, Ryan Adams, Elton John, and My Morning Jacket to envelop Elizabethtown, and by extension the audience, which only serves to piece together Crowe’s “Middle America” portrait that much more cohesively. One of the most striking and memorable sequences from the film is Drew’s third act road trip, during which Crowe’s needledrop game is magnificently on point.
While Elizabethtown wasn’t the Almost Famous-like comeback some were hoping to see, it does have a different kind of legacy. Kirsten Dunst’s character spurred critic Nathan Rabin to coin the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe her so-called shallow, bubbly character that exists only in relation to the protagonist. On a recent rewatch, I was struck by just how much the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” device has devolved in the years since—Dunst’s Claire Colburn may not be the most complex of characters, but she’s leagues more interesting and dimensional than what would pass for “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” today.
And while Bloom’s portrayal of Drew isn’t the most charismatic of onscreen characters, it’s a testament to Crowe’s dialogue and handle on romance that we’re genuinely rooting for Drew and Claire to reconnect by the film’s end. The night-long phone conversation in particular is delightful and, like many of Crowe’s best moments, true to life.
That Elizabethtown is considered by some to be a failure is ironic given the movie’s most prevalent themes. In the film’s opening minutes, Drew waxes poetic about the difference between “failure” and “fiasco” in relation to his disastrous shoe launch, noting that a failure is simply the non-presence of success, while a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. Drew’s journey takes him from resignation to failure/fiasco to the verge of suicide to an acceptance of that failure by the film’s end, and ultimately a resolve to move forward.
Crowe’s film has plenty of problems, but somewhere along the line folks decided the entire movie wasn’t worthwhile, and I’d argue they’re missing some great stuff in between. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it took Crowe six years to recover from the reception to Elizabethtown, and that when he did return with a new narrative feature, it was the heart-on-sleeve, earnest-to-a-fault We Bought a Zoo.
Does Crowe have another great film in him? I have no idea, but I genuinely want him to keep trying. Even if the results are mixed or even disappointing, the guy’s got a wonderfully unique voice and has yet to make a movie that’s wholly without merit. Possibly channeling Crowe’s own thoughts on his career, Claire says to Drew towards the end of Elizabethtown, “You wanna be really great? Then have the courage to fail big and stick around. Make them wonder why you’re still smiling.” By my count, Crowe’s still smiling.