There's a difference between a failure and a fiasco, we're told early on in Elizabethtown, which itself veers between success and failure, never quite reaching the sublime heights of a fiasco. Writer-director Cameron Crowe, who scored big with Jerry Maguire, is known for his powers of observation, the little moments that bring a character, a scene, a movie to life. And Elizabethtown, which is set in the blue hills of Kentucky, far from the media spotlight, is full of them. But the movie sprawls when it should be coming to a head, goes off on tangents that turn out to be dead ends. And you get the impression that Crowe likes it this way, thinks he's made his very own Nashville. But what some people don't realize about Robert Altman in his prime is that it took an awful lot of control to remain that loose.
Orlando Bloom, who's mostly played men in tights so far, tries his hand at a shoe designer for a Nike-like company. And it's not that Bloom's miscast, it's that he turns out to be a rather limited actor, limited to a killer smile that stops the movie in its tracks every time he flashes it. For reasons that would baffle the folks at the Harvard Business School, Bloom's Drew receives all the blame for a shoe ' the SpÃsmotica, complete with umlaut ' that accrues losses of $972 million. Fiasco? There's hardly a chance to ask the question before Drew receives word that his father has suddenly died while visiting relatives in Kentucky. And for reasons that would baffle the average scriptwriter, Drew's sent all by his lonely to fetch the body. Now, not only must he juggle the themes of success and failure, he must juggle the themes of life and death.
On the way there, he meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a flight attendant who takes him under her wing, lightly crushing him. Claire's supposed to be cute but annoying ' one of those full-of-the-life-force roles Ã la Sally Bowles in Cabaret. And although Dunst is hardly a limited actress, she does seem miscast here, forcing effects that would come naturally to, say, Maggie Gyllenhaal or the young Shirley MacLaine. Claire, as befits her name, will offer Drew clarity, but not before he's taken a nosedive into the bosom of a family he's never really known. And despite the air of condescension that hangs over the fine, upstanding citizens of Elizabethtown, the movie's at its best when there are lots of people around, planning a funeral that will never quite recover from Drew's announcement that his father is to be cremated.
All this culture-clash stuff was handled much more sensitively in Junebug, which seemed to have actually spent some time in the boonies before turning the cameras on them. But Elizabethtown isn't without affection for its large cast of characters, some of whom leave bigger impressions than Drew does. Paul Schneider does some nice work as Drew's country cousin, Jessie, who's never gotten over appearing on the same bill as Lynyrd Skynyrd back in the day. Speaking of which, Crowe does his usual masterful job of weaving rock songs into the movie's texture, amplifying the emotions when there are some, supplying them when there aren't. That may be the best indication that he's failed this time around, in fact. The ultimate cinematic mix-tape, Elizabethtown seems less the work of a director than of a DJ.