When I approached multivalent critic-at-large Vadim Rizov about doing a Best of the Decade Derby movie liveblog with me, he proposed Cameron Crowe’s last feature, the much-maligned Elizabethtown. I thought, there’s a choice with a pair of big ones hung on it. Little did I realize (5 minutes before we started watching, to be exact) that this wasn’t actually a film he considered one of the ten best of the decade (or 20 best, for that matter), but for some reason he really wanted to revisit it. Maybe he misheard the project as Most Underrated of the Decade Derby, but in any case, I figured it was worth watching Elizabethtown for the first time, since Crowe’s three features prior had fascinated me for various reasons.
Vadim also alluded to this choice as some kind of reprisal for Mike D’Angelo’s liveblog with me on 25th Hour. I don’t remember the exact reason he gave for that, but as it turned out, the two films have remarkable points of intersection. Both are about young adult men who experience a major fuckup in their career, leading to a radical period of reassessment and revisitation of the past. Both climax with long sequences driving cross-country, the men dutifully following the voiceover guidance of another person who effectively function as guardian angels. Though the chief difference between the two is that one cross-country drive to destiny is real, the other imagined.
Anyway, Vadim and I both agree that Elizabethtown is more ambitious and more flawed than any of Crowe’s films, and even though much of it doesn’t work, there are several moments where he achieves unprecedented levels of depth, craft and maturity in his career. I would very much look forward to seeing him apply these advances in another feature, should he ever get the opportunity to make another one after the commercial disaster of Elizabethtown.
Vadim in blue, me in black.
0:00 -VR: Crowe’s movies have gotten better looking over the year. No one talks about how Say Anything is such a horrendous looking movie. His technical skills, shooting- and montage-wise, are the best they’ve ever been in this film.
“There’s a difference between a failure and a fiasco” – this is the line that everyone uses against the film. Nathin Rabin’s ongoing Onion blog project on Hollywood flops used the words “failure, fiasco or secret success” to delineate between each film he discussed. Elizabethtown was the first film he covered. But I think he’s going to end the project by going back to it, just to see if he feels differently.
0:01 – Oh this is a Judy Silk cover. This movie has more 70s music than even Almost Famous.
This is Cameron Crowe’s Juliet of the Spirits. Style for the sake of style.
0:03 – KL – He’s riffing off Jerry Maguire here.
VR: And that’s what Mike D’Angelo hates about it. That it focuses and amplifies a lot of what’s bad about Jerry Maguire.
Susan Sarandon is the worst thing about this movie.
0:04 – Here’s the inevitable Apartment homage moment.
0:05 – KL: This is the quintessential “oppressed by success” monologue.
0:06 – VR: Here’s Alec Baldwin’s dry run for 30 Rock.
0:07 – “My Global Environment Watchdog Project” – this shot is part of why this movie cost $80 million dollars.
0:10 – KL: I love the photo of Jessical Biel on the flatscreen. And it’s animated!
VR: Yeah, in all the little touches you can see the budget of this film.
0:11- That facial expression on Orlando Bloom’s face is his expression for the entire movie.
This movie was his bid to break out of the Lord of the Rings ghetto, but people weren’t having it. And yet this to me is a very satisfying romantic comedy performance.
0:15 – There’s an implicit North/South thing which goes on throughout the movie. There’s a Lynryd Skynrd thing that goes on, and then there’s the scene where he sees his dad’s corpse and Elton John’s “My Father’s Gun” plays, and it’s a Southern themed song from Tumbleweed Connection. So a lot of the subtextual music plays out in the song selection.
Elizabethtown, Kentucky is a real place, and he did shoot there, God bless him.
0:16 – KL: Bloom is the only guy on this flight. Don’t they normally cancel flights in this situation?
VR: Like I said, this is highly stylized.
0:17 – Kirsten Dunst is incredibly annoying. I hate her guts. She’s awful.
KL: It’s more like this dialogue is the problem.
VR: Well the trick is that she’s obnoxious here but then she grows on him, and they separate, and when they reconnect she embodies all the hangups about reuniting with someone after an extended period of building them up in your mind. But it’s amazing that a movie that I really like features someone I really despise.
0:21 – VR: I think when I saw this in the theater this was the point when the three girls sitting behind me started to flip out and every three minute say “What the hell is this?”
0:22 – KL: Part of it for me is the timing, It feels a little sluggish.
0:23 – And here’s Fleetwood Mac – it’s southern but faux southern.
0:24 – Now Dunst’s character is starting to look better, after all that nattering about not missing 60B, not missing 60B, and look what happens to him.
0:25 – VR: Everyone’s pointing him to the where is dad is. How do they know? Love it or hate it, the film is pretty straight up about what it’s up to.
0:26 – And here’s Paul Schneider from All the Real Girls.
KL: And was he ever heard from again?
VR: I think hes been in some minor things here and there. But this was his first big role after All the Real Girls.
There’s a great deal of hugging that Orlando Bloom has inflicted upon them. And these two guys are nice. You don’t really see character actors like them.
0:27 – KL: “Whimsical.” I really like this moment a lot because it’s introspective and understated.
0:31 – But there goes the understatement. But that’s what I like about it. It’s not afraid to go over the top. At the same time he’s letting the song do a lot of the carrying of the meaning. It’s kind of candyish and overstimulated.
0:33 – KL: There’s a pseudo-Preston Sturges thing going on with how he’s dealing with Americana.
VR: A lot of these people look like people from small town midwest.
KL: But they’re kind of exaggerated, and we’re not sure what do do with these characters. He’s poking them a little, but he seems to love them all the same. It feels ambivalent like a Sturges Americana movie.
0:34 – VR: This is one of the great nonsequirits of the movie – the way they shut the kid up is really awesome. It’s like the “dialectics for kids” stuff in Half Nelson.
0:37 – I don’t think there’s been a scene that’s longer than a minute.
0:38 – This is one of two films in 2005 that prominently featured Lynyrd Skynrd. The other one being The Devil’s Rejects.
0:40 – I’m pretty sure David Gordon Green hates this movie.
KL: Well he probably thinks its really disingenuous, not as heartfelt as his films. But it’s heartfelt in its own way, just not a David Gordon Green way.
VR: This film is really sincere, it’s almost embarrassingly sincere.
0:44 – KL: “You have to come back right away. Mom wants to learn how to cook.” There’s like this Sundance quirk thing going on. And we had just seen Shrink earlier this week, and the main line in my review for it was that it’s quirk done to death. Here it’s quirky-annoying too, but not in the same formulaic way. There’s something about it that makes it his own. Something about the rhythms he establishes with his speech, a little left of James L. Brooks, and much further away from Sundance cadences.
0:47: This is a 3 hour phone conversation cut up into highlights. It’s almost too much, but like everything else so far, it’s go for broke. Take a cute, quirky idea and crank it to 11. Instead of 5 one-liners extracted from an all night phone date, how about 15?
I think a young Holly Hunter or Frances McDormand would have pulled this off. She’s more cute than sassy.
0:50 – VR: “Life and death and death and life, right next door, just a hair from each other!” He’s drunk. And he’s unleashed.
I love the beer bottles clinking when they hug.
KL: Yeah it has a nice punctuation effect to it.
0:51 -This movie is finding itself in my brain. People’s everyday social behavior patterns have been somehow skewed – like everything and everyone is in an not quite there state. Maybe it reflects Orlando Bloom’s mental state, the synapses are misfiring.
0:54 – VR: I’ve been watching the time on this sequence – and they’ve been on the phone in this movie for the last 10 minutes.
And now they’re in the car and they’re about to be underwhelmed.
And this is the first cue in the movie that I think you can consider Sundancey. The go look at the sunrise together.
0:57 – “We peaked on the phone.” It only took him 13 minutes to make that point. But he’ll come back to it.
0:58 – Susan Sarandon is the one in this movie who deserves to be in Little Miss Sunshine.
1:00 – KL: I still don’t know quite to make of Kirsten Dunst.
1:01 – VR: Cameron Crowe shoud just stick to 70s music, because this song sucks. Even “In Your Eyes” is a shitty song. I don’t know how he has this reputation as a great mixtape artist. Because he’s not.
1:03 – “We are substitute people.” Shades of Fight Club.
1:04 – Still, I kinda like this movie because it’s digressive and unpredictable and leisurely, that even when it’s annoying me it’s interesting. Stuff like how did he find a gas station with that plastic horse outside. It’s not annoying like in Garden State when Zach Braff wakes up and sees a guy dressed in a full suit of armor. It’s found stuff.
1:06 – This is the first time that he asserts himself in the film. It’s been 66 minutes.
KL: I assume he’ll be doing more of that?
VR: No. He actually has no arc in this movie.
1:09 -KL: This kid’s video – “Learning to Listen” – It’s like he’s entering Richard Kelly territory here.
VR: I don’t know why he puts this video in, but it’s really cool.
1:14 – KL: Around now I feel like the movie is starting to find it’s groove here where they’ve established the landscape and now they’re just working their way through it.
VR: Yeah, I feel like if this scene was in Garden State it would be really annoying.
KL: The distinction there is that he’s less interested in ingratiating the audience like what Garden State is intent on doing. Here he’s just into playing and hanging out with his characters. It’s like he doesn’t know what they’re going to do next.
VR: Like where when she says she’s been starving herself all week. I appreciate a line like that.
KL: This movie is like a romantic comedy jam session, he’s just riffing and seeing where it’s going.
1:18 – I’m really digging this scene.
1:19 – It’s really cool how she saw that he was reading from a script and just shrugged it off. We’ve finaly arrived at some kind of truth with the Dunst character. The fact that she shrugged off his fake declaration of love and that she talks about being hung up with this other loser guy tells you how much she kind of hates herself.
1:20 – VR: Well they finally did it, thank goodness. Now they’re watching Roman Holiday.
1:21 – This is really nice, the first scene of her that’s not from his perspective. And you can start to see how massively damaged she is.
1:22 – KL: I wonder how many laidoff finance people would appreciate this now.
1:23 -VR: In a way this is starker than Jerry Maguire because he has even less going for him. It is kind of annoying because it is about Cameron Crowe’s self-flaggelation. “You’re an artist, your job is to break barriers.”
1:25 – It’s a little tough-minded about the fact that she’s seeing a married guy and she keeps telling him repeatedly.
1:26 – So in this part of the film, we get to experience the best and worst part of the movie back to back.
1:28 – I’m going to use the bathroom while Susan Sarandon does this . This is the scene that every review condemned, and rightfully so.
This is truly unforgiveable
KL: But why, isn’t this what the movie’s about?
VR: It’s what the movie’s about but it takes the wrong things in the movie and amplifies them. And also the things I value about the movie are visual and tone, and the fact that all of that stops for Susan Sarandon talking for a long time. And a penis joke.
1:35 – KL: What sucks is that he’s now just trying to sell this moment and he’s pushing too hard for some kind of beauty, and it’s not quite coming out. And he has to lay on the touchy-feely distortion guitar to inject it with pathos. And the cuts to the sister being all soulful and shit are abominable.
1:37 – VR: But now they’re going to rock out to “Freebird.” And this bird in flames comes swooping down. This for me is the really last awesome sequence of the movie.
1:41 – KL: Cameron Crowe is so hung up on his iconic last looks of women.
1:42 – VR: This burial is kind of lame with the malfunctioning pulleys to lower the casket, but it’s not different from the similar scene with Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks.
1:43 – So here’s the extended road trip, and it’s like she had somehow had enough time to make a mix tape with notes and a scrapbook.
In the same way that Vanilla Sky is both retarded and fascinating about what it says about Cameron Crowe and his obsessions.
1:45 This may be the only instance of classical music in Cameron Crowe’s filmography, and of course it’s during a terrible moment.
1:46 – It’s so much like Vanilla Sky because it’s about the massive presence of pop culture in your life, it’s like an anti-Chuck Klosterman movie.
KL: But it’s different because it’s about how escaping into pop culture is a salvation when your life is falling apart. It’s weird because he’s lampooning the notion of cultural literacy but at the same time it’s a salvation, or at least a salve, when nothing else is going for you.
VR: But then look at this. He goes to the place where Martin Luther King got shot. And he’s actually blasting U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” in the soundtrack.
KL: He must be doing this with his tongue in his cheek. It’s so warped. It’s playful, kind of jocular, self-consciously ridiculous.
VR: Who knows. But I wil say that the reason why people like Nathan Lee will embrace Southland Tales but never this film is because this film doesn’t attempt to be provocative and it’s kind of retrograde and cuddly. To accept this movie you have to admit that there’s a validity to the cinematic equivalent to the cheesy music Cameron Crowe likes.
1:52 – KL: It would have been great for him to have a long uninterrupted monologue of saying whatever it is that he’s saying to his father’s remains without Elton John drowning him out.
VR: He probably couldn’t think of what to write.
1:54 – KL: small town fair, carousel, anonymous in a crowd. I wonder if there’s an homage to Some Came Running?
VR: So the original ending was that the shoe gets discovered by some kid in Kuala Lumpur who finds some alternative purpose and it makes him into a millionaire.
Jeff Wells claims that Crowe was so devastated by the reception of this movie that he didn’t have the heart to raise money for his next project.
KL: I think, more than in any of his previous films, he’s trying to reinvent the romantic comedy here, or at least stretch things out to see what new things may come out. I wish I could think of a work in some 70s musician’s career that this film correlates to, where it goes just one step beyond where most people can handle. Like maybe Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, though that band was never popular to begin with.