What's the difference between a failure and a fiasco? That's the first question Orlando Bloom's character, Drew Baylor, asks himself in Cameron Crowe's "Elizabethtown," and the question he keeps asking throughout. It also echoes some of the critical response that followed the movie's premiere at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, making it seem uncannily prescient and self-aware.
In Toronto, "Elizabethtown" was introduced with a disclaimer, and Crowe has since trimmed it by about 15 minutes. But I doubt the edit will change the minds of anyone who didn't like it the first time around. The new version remains, in many ways, a mess of a movie — but a warm, friendly mess that's hard not to like, even when it tests your patience.
Despite his own success, Crowe seems unusually drawn to big-scale failure both as a subject and a mind-altering experience. You get the feeling that success-worship bugs him, because it inhibits people and makes them cowardly and conformist. ("Success — not greatness — was the only god the entire world served," Drew says, as his colleagues throw him pitying looks.) The upside of Jerry Maguire's indigestion-inspired career suicide was that it doubled as a psychedelic trip and moral epiphany. It's not until Crowe's protagonists fail, or are publicly humiliated or rejected, that their authentic selves emerge. "Failure," Drew muses, as he descends from a helicopter, ducking to avoid decapitation on his way to getting fired, "is simply the nonpresence of success. But a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions."
Like his characters, Crowe is given to flights of fancy, sudden enthusiasms, and risks — which sets him apart from other contemporary commercial American filmmakers. "Elizabethtown" doesn't just open on the subject of failure, it gives in to the same impulses that send Crowe's protagonists on lonely, weird and often misunderstood missions. (Like proposing a Rockwellian code of ethics to a bunch of shark-like sports agents, say, or designing a blubbery sneaker in the shape of a stingray.) The movie gets lost sometimes, wandering down several stray paths to nowhere, only to suddenly change course and wind up in an unexpectedly exhilarating place. In this sense, it's the opposite of the quick commute of the average commercial movie. It's a meandering road trip instead.
Drew is an athletic shoe designer whose wildly anticipated sneaker, the Späsmotica, has just lost his company $972 million. Crushed and humiliated, he goes home, fastens a butcher knife to his exercise bike and hops on. Then the phone rings. It's his sister, Heather (Judy Greer), with the news that their father has died while visiting relatives in Elizabethtown, Ky. On his way to retrieve the body, Drew meets an alarmingly spunky flight attendant named Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst), a desperately lonely soul who clings grimly to optimism as if one bad mood will send her over the edge of the world. Checking into a hotel in Louisville that night, Drew calls Claire (mainly because he can't reach anyone else). Pretty soon, she is turning up in Elizabethtown, trying to charm him into loving her. Drew, meanwhile, has discovered a family and a side to his father he never knew existed.
From the enormity of Drew's financial disaster ("It's so big it could be rounded up to a billion," says Drew's boss, Phil, played by a hilariously unctuous Alec Baldwin) to the puffed-up silliness of the shoe company where he works (an utopian Pacific Northwest "campus" with an in-house basketball team and a global environmental watchdog project) to the farcical look of his über-sneakers, with their floppy fins and decorative umlaut, every detail in "Elizabethtown" is taken to its absurdist extreme. At the same time, it's a deeply personal movie, based loosely on Crowe's experiences after the release of his first movie, "Say Anything," whose fortunes were unexpectedly reversed by the mighty thumbs of Siskel and Ebert, and whose success his father was celebrating when he died suddenly. What Crowe seems to be going for are the heightened emotions that go along with major personal catastrophes, those rare times in life when everything seems to come together in one, tangled, glowing mess of meaning.
At sporadic intervals, he succeeds. The film's best moments are pure expressions of feeling: Drew melting down in the car after failing to find his freeway exit for the umpteenth time; Drew and Claire visiting Colonel Sanders' grave, where people have left individual hot sauce packets in loving tribute; the moment they walk up to each other on the morning after their all-night talk, cellphones still stuck to their ears, Claire asking, "Can we hang up now?"; Uncle Dale's (Loudon Wainwright III) quiet disapproval of the way his son Jessie (Paul Schneider) is raising his son; Jessie's resignation at his father's disapproval.
But these moments and others that are equally touching, funny and true, not to mention set to great music, make the movie's missteps all the more frustrating. Bloom is surprisingly comfortable in the role of Drew, coming off as sweet, warm and easygoing, and easily in touch with his pit of despair. Claire is likable enough when she relaxes, which is almost never. (All her emotional push-pulling comes to feel a little crazy considering Drew isn't really push-pulling back.) But Susan Sarandon and Greer, playing Drew's over-the-top mother and flaky neurotic sister, respectively, seem as if they belong in another movie entirely and could have easily been reduced to voices on the phone.
That Sarandon's and Greer's characters survived the cut is especially galling, considering what was lost.
In the first cut, the fortunes of Drew's shoes are reversed when a teenager discovers that the Späsmotica can be modified so that the shoes whistle when you walk in them. The trend spreads organically, virally, and soon, teenagers everywhere are clipping their fins and filling the air with an ethereal tune. The sequence — which will no doubt be restored on the DVD — is the excised heart of the movie, as well its hopeful message about personal vision and its mysterious connective powers. Drew's shoes outlive both hype and criticism to find their audience. It'll be interesting to see if the movie does the same.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for language and some sexual references
Times guidelines: Very mild language and oblique sexual references
A Paramount Pictures release. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Produced by Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Cameron Crowe. Director of photography John Toll. ASC. Editor David Moritz. Production designer Clay A. Griffith. Costume designer Nancy Steiner. Music by Nancy Wilson. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.In general releaseCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times