Colorful characters enliven Elizabethtown

Cameron Crowe is back. After leaving behind the subgenre he helped build to make the sci-fi thriller Vanilla Sky in 2001, Crowe has returned to his old form with Elizabethtown. Thankfully, he’s as good as ever.

Everything great about Crowe is showcased in Elizabethtown, from the heartfelt and funny dialogue to the brilliant soundtrack. He is a shining example of how good and mainstream don’t have to be two different things and that Hollywood can still do something right once in a while.

Elizabethtown centers around Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), a hotshot executive at a shoe conglomerate whose latest sneaker creation has caused an uproar in the industry. At the beginning of the film he loses what’s probably the only job he’s ever had and is a few days away from the release of a magazine feature that will bury him forever.

The night of the firing, Baylor’s sister interrupts what might be cinema’s first comedic suicide attempt, telling him that their father died. Unable to inflict more grieving upon his mother and sister, he stops and goes home to them, eventually ending up in Elizabethtown, Ky., his father’s hometown.

The film, like all of Crowe’s work before Vanilla Sky, doesn’t need a grand or complex plot. It basically alternates between a fish-out-of-water story and a love story between him and an airline flight attendant played by Kirsten Dunst. Crowe’s ability to take stories that seem familiar and find amazing new ways of telling them is the foundation from which his success has sprouted.

Critics of the film have been quick to point out similarities between Elizabethtown’s trailers and Garden State, which both feature emotionally lost young guys dealing with the death of a parent. In addition to the fact that Crowe could not possibly have seen Garden State before being significantly deep into pre-production on Elizabethtown, the two films are almost complete opposites stylistically and share little more than a general plot premise.

Garden State, a very impressive directorial debut for Zach Braff, was moody and reflective, peppered with emo songs and quirky dialogue. Elizabethtown, on the other hand, is bright and joyous, featuring a mostly cheerful soundtrack and a great bluegrass-inspired score by Crowe’s wife, Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson.

The scenes with the people of Elizabethtown are the shining moments of the film, capped off by a great finale with Baylor’s mom, played by Susan Sarandon. For the family and friends in Elizabethtown, Crowe casts everyone from his own mother to folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. By the end, the citizens of the town have individual personalities and quirks and become a real part of the story instead of a side outlet for comic relief.

Along with all of his strengths, some of Crowe’s weaknesses have carried over to this film as well. A few of the romantic scenes feel contrived or forced, and despite working with Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll, the camerawork remains very ordinary. Still, the few times in which the film strays off path are easily excusable given the fantastically enjoyable characters, locations and plot.

Dunst and Sarandon have shown their ability to enliven roles like these time and time again, and both are good as always in Elizabethtown. The real surprise is Bloom, who was unproven not only as a leading man but as a dramatic actor altogether, having thus far appeared almost exclusively in fantasy adventures and epics. Elizabethtown is by far his most personal, down-to-earth film yet, and it’s easy to see that he really gets the role, beyond just saying the lines. With Elizabethtown, Bloom has proven that he can carry a film, and this time he doesn’t have to carry a sword to do it.

Elizabethtown is Crowe’s sixth directing effort in 16 years, and although he may not be the best all-out director in Hollywood, he is undoubtedly one of the best storytellers around, and Elizabethtown is the most entertaining film of the year.

Shawn Wines can be contacted at