Mark Steyn

Out of step

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‘The motto of the British Air Force Special Services,’ announces Orlando Bloom, ‘is, “Those who risk, win”.’

Close enough, I suppose. Mr Bloom is from Canterbury and, if he doesn’t care, there’s no reason why I should. But it is oddly representative of Elizabethtown — a movie that even as it insists how true it is has an oddly false tinkle. There’s a moment when Drew (Bloom) is telling Claire (Kirsten Dunst) how he ‘really’ feels. They happen to be in a hotel banqueting suite and the groom’s vows for the following day’s wedding are at his place setting, so Drew swipes the card and starts reading them aloud to Claire. It’s the usual stuff — the dreams they dream, the things they’ll do, the children they’ll teach to do the things they’ll do — and Claire giggles because ‘we’re not them’, which is true. But the film never makes a convincing case that they’re anybody else, either. The more Cameron Crowe attempts to subvert the conventions of romantic comedy the more contrived it seems.

When Crowe showed this picture at the Toronto Film Festival, the word-of-mouth seemed to be that it was a disaster. Since then he’s chucked 20 minutes, mostly by trimming an interminable travelogue ending and eliminating a segment on the tangential question of whistling footwear. What remains is not catastrophic, though the ticket clerk at the theatre I saw it in said it was the biggest bust in months and he couldn’t understand how I’d managed to sit through to the end. Well, it’s got a couple of things I liked very much, namely Kirsten Dunst’s two canine teeth, which seem to be growing more and more prominent. She’d make an awful cute vampire.

But I digress, as the film does frequently. Elizabethtown opens with Drew Baylor in big trouble. He’s managed to design a shoe that has lost his company $972 million. So he gets fired by his boss, Alec Baldwin. Mr Baldwin, you’ll recall, had pledged to leave America if George W. Bush won the 2000 election. If he did, he evidently settled in the Somerset village of Lardbutt Magna, or maybe Colombe-Les-Deux-Butterscotch-Puddings. Man, has he bulked up. He doesn’t seem like a shoe executive watching his profits disappear, he’s more of a choux executive making his profiteroles disappear. He’s turning into Marlon Brando, but without having made any classic movies first, unless you count the Thomas the Tank Engine picture, and, if they ever remake that, he can play the title role.

But I digress again. The fiasco-footwear scenes are strange. The shoe doesn’t quite fit. Movie-character professions are usually just necessary window-dressing, but Crowe belabours the whole shoe thing as if determined to convince us this is what his character truly does five days a week. I don’t think so. Anyway, the shoe boy gets fired, and goes home to commit suicide, through the somewhat cumbersome method of attaching a kitchen knife to his exercise bike. And at that point the phone rings. His dad’s died while visiting family and friends back in Kentucky, and Drew has to postpone his suicide until his father’s been dispatched.

So he hops on a plane. He’s the only passenger and Kirsten Dunst is the only stewardess, and they don’t have a Meet Cute scene so much as a Hector Cute scene. He’s trying to nap, she’s hectoring away and coming on far too strong. But a couple of days later he’s alone in his hotel suite and in an idle moment looks at the phone number she scribbled down and...Well, you know how it goes. It’s one of those deals where they get together by pretending they’re not getting together. They say goodbye every ten minutes and then one calls the other from the cellphone and it turns out she’s behind the rubber plant in the hotel lobby. It’s all vaguely screwball-ish, if you can have a screwball comedy between a daffy gal and a male co-star so wan and passive he’s basically a cool haircut with suicidal tendencies.

Between Miss Dunst’s southern-fried charm and the eccentric-by-numbers foibles of the folks back in the old Kentucky home, Cameron Crowe evidently has, as the song says, sweet Kentucky ham on his mind, and one monster hunk of it, too. Not that there’s any real sense of place. There’s a bunch of fine actors playing the natives but they don’t have much to do: Bruce McGill bounds on with a big bearhug of an intro and promptly disappears. Local colour is confined to the wallpapers in every room and not quite persuasive details, like rabbit ears on the TV. And by the time we get to the memorial service Crowe is frantically tossing anything at the screen, starting with Dad’s widow, Susan Sarandon, tap-dancing to ‘Moon River’.

You can sort of see where he’s going. He wants to show a woman who’s been identified for the last several decades as a wife suddenly flying solo. We’ve all known widows who blossom, though not usually between the heart attack and the funeral, in which few days Miss Sarandon’s character has managed to take not only tap lessons but stand-up comedy class, too. The mourners laugh and applaud, but they’re Equity extras getting told how to react. I doubt whether real mourners would be so charmed. What’s supposed to be life-affirming comes across as self-absorbed and, indeed, rather heartless. Perhaps Crowe understands that. Maybe that’s why he sliced four bars out of ‘Moon River’. Or maybe he just doesn’t like the song.

He likes a lot of others, though. The film ends with a bizarre mix tape of cool numbers accompanying a cross-country road trip of sites that are supposed to restore our faith in America — the motel where Martin Luther King was shot, etc. Instead, it plays like a Cameron Crowe sampler: scenery with music. And your main thought is not how real this all is but how reductive the vocabulary of movies has become. There is one marvellous scene — a magnificent incendiary Lynyrd Skynyrd moment that in its own way has a great emotional truth. But this director needs to relearn that SOS motto: Those people who risk being daring will be the winners. Or whatever.