In spite of what may be suggested by the fact that young-adult icons Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst are its main stars, “Elizabethtown” is not based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. Actually, the sappy rain-soaked kisses and melodramatic deaths are kept to a minimum, though there could be less, and what remains from the Oscar-winning writer/director Cameron Crowe (of “Almost Famous” fame) is a barely tolerable movie more concerned with weak musings than making sense of life, death and love.
Bloom, taking a break from his usual period-epic prancing, plays Drew Baylor, a young shoe company exec who finds himself the cause of a near billion-dollar loss to the conglomerate he works for. As his boss Phil (who else but Alec Baldwin) puts it, he has managed to sink a sum large enough to rival the budget of a small country. Ironically, this loss is the most inconsequential in regards to the rest of the movie. Viewers will likely forget that it even happened when things take a turn for the utmost depressing and Drew, in the midst of a funny, mock-serious suicide attempt, receives a phone call from his sister informing him that his father has died.
Enter Elizabethtown, Ky., the father’s place of birth and death, and the location of a cadaver that Drew has been assigned to retrieve and cremate “because he’s the oldest.” But before he can arrive there, he must be the sole passenger on a red-eye flight from his home in Oregon to the Fried Chicken State. He meets chummy stewardess Claire, a Southern belle of sorts played with Dunst’s signature goofy-meets-Meg-Ryan cuddliness. Boy and girl do some talking, boy learns from girl’s driving directions as well as her correct pronunciation of “Louisville,” which, apparently, sounds more like “Loo-uh-vul” than “Lewie-vill.” Who knew?
With Claire’s phone number and a quasi-American accent in tow, Drew finally arrives in Elizabethtown and the film immediately seems to age a few years. Crowe’s skillful treatment of the setting — all pervasive Southern din, ceaseless cooking, glossy friendliness and prideful charm — is the only purely enjoyable aspect of the film. Instead of a typical score, grassy music and screaming children blare in our ears and provide a sharp contrast to those rare moments of silence.
Another disparity surfaces as well in the awkward disconnect between Bloom and other actors, which works well when he is meeting old “cuzins” and acquaintances of his father, but somehow encroaches on those relationships he should feel comfortable in. In a scene that elliptically shows a night-long conversation between Drew and Claire, they both take advantage of their unlimited weekend minutes, doing everything over the phone from urinating to stating random profundities. However, when the two come together physically, their separate energies cannot seem to make contact. While they are supposed to mutually project an amorous dynamic, it seems that Dunst is doing all the work. And when Drew’s mother (Susan Sarandon in an underdeveloped role) arrives for the memorial service, it seems incredulous that these two characters, mother and son, know each other.
It is even Sarandon’s big scene that delivers the film’s most substantial digression. Her widowed Hollie allows the funeral obsequies to include a tap-dance number and an absurd comedy routine that includes a joke about “Bob’s boner,” which is destined to garner awkward laughter at most.
Truly, Crowe never seems to take a side on how he wants to address the father’s death. At times, especially and surprisingly from Bloom, there is a penetrating sense of the devastation, of the overwhelming regret of having missed out on too many opportunities. Other instances seem to poke fun at the whole procession with whimsical shopping excursions for urns, noisily descending caskets and Sarandon’s ambiguous emotional state.
Ultimately, the audience is forced to accept the possibility of these two turtledoves loving each other. Claire sends Drew off on a (comparatively quick) soul-searching road trip through a vast American landscape, which provides an opportunity for him to scatter his father’s ashes in an assortment of historic locales and to find a reason to move on with his life.
Many, like Bloom, will find it hard to feel at home in “Elizabethtown” — it mostly requires a lowering of expectations, or at least an appreciation for the ambiance of Kentuckian cricket-chirps. Some may find themselves annoyed at being taught the same didactic life-lessons when all they really want to do is laugh, cry on the shoulder of a middle-aged woman and go home to catch “American Idol.” And those looking for more comfortably formulaic fare, with romantic parings that are remotely feasible, are better off just re-renting “The Notebook.”