Although presumably in development for years, the basic set-up of Elizabethtown is essentially a more optimistic, focus-grouped version of Zach Braff's infinitely more interesting and complete Garden State, where a depressed young man returning home for a family funeral falls in love with a gorgeous local girl. But where that film had an angsty, contemporary mood and offbeat, prickly characters, Crowe’s approach is to fire indiscriminate love-bombs at his madly meandering story and then, after a few studio-mandated re-edits and a trim of twenty minutes, attempt to present a film from the resulting rainbow-drenched carnage.
The plot is an absolute mess. Bloom is Drew Baylor, an introverted shoe designer who just lost his Nike-inspired company a billion dollars. Later, while preparing a meticulously planned suicide, he gets a call from his neurotic sister (Judy Greer) to tell him his father has died while visiting his family in Kentucky and Drew must go and collect his remains. On the plane, he meets the pushy, free-spirited air stewardess Claire (Kirsten Dunst), with the two inexplicably linked from that point forward. Together Dunst and Bloom register an absolute zero on the chemistry gauge, and little wonder. The one-dimensional characters they're forced to play couldn't be more teeth-grindingly irritating if they were street charity muggers hustling your sort-code while playing Bohemian Rhapsody on broken kazoos and kicking you in the shins. Bloom's Drew is an inert, mostly re-active cipher for Crowe’s own fixations and never once a fully formed, three-dimensional cinema character. Dunst, saddled with some awful dialogue and struggling with the eye-lash fluttering Southern Belle accent, nervously grins and mugs her way through the elaborate staging, rescuing what she can from the resulting inferno before the ceiling collapses. That smoking crash comes when Susan Sarandon, playing the very merry Widow Baylor, gives a simpleminded five minute eulogy before a spontaneous, and similarly lengthy, tap dance at her dead husband’s memorial. What is supposed to be charming and quirky is just wrong and weird and worse, terminally boring.
A whole other movies worth of subplots frame the smoking craters here, offering fox-holes for Crowe and his wide-eyed cast to briefly escape the devastation but adding absolutely nothing to the drama while bloating the already patience-testing running-time to a fantastically grand level. The writer/director then adds a Ghandi-esque crowd of supporting players; Drew’s co-workers, extended family and childhood friends, all playing high notes in full voice. There’s barely room to move with cameos from a host of yet another level of supporting players, non-actors (TV chefs and folk singers among them) delivering every gumbo-stained stereotype imaginable, and then some. Whatever hopes Crowe had for his lead cutie-pies burgeoning romance is lost in the scrum of wise elders, eccentrics, screeching children and affectionate drunks.
This is jukebox cinema; a meandering mix tape of Crowe’s own back catalogue rattled out in an uncomfortably arch and distracted style and edited, apparently, by a combine harvester with no sense of comic timing. Elizabethtown is littered throughout with the chaff of Crowe’s peculiar obsessions – a never-ending soundtrack of dinosaur rock music (every scene has it’s own accompaniment), quirky girls in red hats and that golden 35mm lens flare flashing off the asphalt on the lumbering director’s well-travelled road to nowhere. Crowe’s dwindling efforts to mine the rich seam of screwball comedy that his heroes Preston Sturges, Frank Capra and Billy Wilder could tap into, seemingly at will but actually through hard graft at the typewriter and clarity of vision, is both bafflingly obtuse and criminally negligent of his own clumsy conceit. Very little gets resolved, but very few will care.
When, finally, Drew takes a sentimental road trip back across America - in what felt to me like real time - and Elizabethtown sputtered to its idiosyncratically candyfloss conclusion I hardly had the strength left to protest. “There's a difference between a failure and a fiasco”, someone says early on. Not from where I’m sitting.