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Almost Shameless

Town bawl: Killer tunes, copious tearjerking can't cover up Crowe's patchwork plot

Reviews of Elizabethtown will begin in one of two ways: The reviewer will compare Cameron Crowe's latest to the bizarrely similar Garden State, or she'll quip on the opening voiceover by Orlando Bloom, a rumination on the difference between "failure" and a "fiasco."

There's no avoiding it, so here goes. Both Elizabethtown and Garden State involve a despondent single guy in flux returning home after a death—in this case, Bloom's Drew Baylor must retrieve the body of his father, who has died visiting Kentucky relations. As in Garden State, the despondent lad's life is changed by a gutsy woman and some killer tunes. But where the earlier flick, in its smallness, felt like an honest representation of writer-director-star Zach Braff's struggles with notions of home, Crowe's is a hodgepodge of great ideas and moods in search of a plot to enrich.

Great idea number one: Spoof '90s lifestyle culture largesse. We begin with a lengthy sequence about Drew's career plunge after designing a flop running shoe for a hegemonic company. His boss, Phil, played with Glengarry gusto by Alec Baldwin, is a giddily drawn billionaire spiritualist-sadist, a fun conflation of two iconic "Phils," Nike's Phil Knight and the NBA's Phil Jackson. But unlike Braff's lo-fi shorthand intro that humanized his wage-slave antihero, Baldwin's bigness and the shiny mocked milieu leave Bloom a blank. If Say Anything's Lloyd Dobler was the perfect boyfriend and Jerry Maguire the perfect dick, Drew Baylor is the perfect ghost.

Jumping way too soon into his big-song, window-stare contemplation mode, Crowe takes identification with Drew for granted. Though it's played for laughs, the fact that mom Susan Sarandon and sister Judy Greer are too frazzled to go to Kentucky comes off as simply weird. Sarandon seems as confused as we are that her character would take tap lessons instead of making funeral arrangements, and Greer just seems an unfunny version of her Arrested Development nut job.

But then there's great idea number two: casting Kirsten Dunst. Drew meets flight attendant Claire on a plane to Kentucky, and Dunst, like Kate Hudson before her, devours her role as the wise, goofy, music-savvy goddess. Like Woody Allen, Crowe repeatedly scripts the perfect girlfriend (without, thank god, injecting himself into the fantasy). But Drew is such a void that Claire's obsessive affection for him verges on stalker-esque. So too do the suffocating attentions of Drew's Kentucky cousins. Without an emotional anchor, absurd touches veer into almost Lynchian creepiness—as when Drew arrives in Elizabethtown and everyone wordlessly points him toward his family's street.

Crowe's confident, clockwork tearjerking often seems baseless. Just when we're sure Drew hardly knew his dad, moving soft-focus flashbacks of father and son sucker punch us out of nowhere. Crowe's mastery of the music-aided emotional catharsis is in fine form; it just needs a real story. Of course, you'll have long given up on narrative by the time you reach great idea number three: the perfect-girlfriend road trip map and mix tape. By the time Drew ditches the titular town and heads west alone with his dad's ashes, following a route charted and scored by his muse, we're as ecstatic to be on the road as he is, and the sad, funny shots of him talking to and patting the urn in the passenger seat might make you cry from both the inherent pathos and for the movie this could have been. It's not a fiasco, but as the voiceover admits, anyone can fail.

 
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