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By Pete Vonder Haar | October 16, 2005

Cameron Crowe is generally regarded as an above average filmmaker. Certainly few writers or directors have produced films that earn such consistent critical praise as his. Hell, even when he’s not great, he’s usually pretty good. Rather than going through peaks and valleys, like many of his contemporaries, Crowe’s career has mostly seen peaks and…meadows. The high points of his writing career (Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Say Anything,” Almost Famous) are punctuated by movies that don’t really qualify as low points, since most of them are still pretty good (“Singles,” “Jerry Maguire”). They just don’t hit it out of the park like his better films.

Unfortunately, with “Elizabethtown,” Crowe finally has his first genuine dog since 1984’s “The Wild Life.”

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is a man who, like a lot of Crowe’s male protagonists, is insecure, thoughtful, and facing upheavals in both his professional and private life. He works for Mercury, a shoe company that is obviously Nike with the serial numbers filed off (the president is even named Phil). Rather, he “worked” for them. Drew’s just been canned for designing a sneaker that looks like its going to cost his company about $1 billion. To make matters worse, his sister calls him as he’s making preparations for elliptical bike hara kiri (you’ll understand when you see it) to tell him their father has passed away, and he needs to fly to Elizabethtown, KY to make arrangements with the family.

On the red eye to Kentucky, Drew meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), an insufferably positive flight attendant who goes to remarkable (and unlikely) lengths to make an impression on our hero. After meeting with his father’s American-as-apple-pie extended family, Drew ends up calling Claire and talking throughout the night. She provides a touchstone for him throughout the occasionally sticky funeral negotiations and eventually, we’re led to believe, shows him that…let me check my notes…one’s true worth isn’t measured by their material success, but how they seize their own destiny.

Sure, okay. The biggest problem with “Elizabethtown” isn’t in its shopworn theme, but that it’s perhaps the first of Crowe’s movies (though “Jerry Maguire” comes very close) that really feels forced. Every scene with Drew and Claire is loaded with deliberately precious dialogue, as if Crowe lacked faith in the ability of his principals to carry the story. We’ve come quite a ways since Lloyd could simply kick some glass out of Diane’s path, or a stricken William Miller watched as paramedics tried to resuscitate Penny Lane. Crowe seems so desperate to make a Big Statement he allows his characters to devolve into caricatures, a problem around which he’s always danced without actually falling victim to it.

Part of the problem lies with Crowe’s script – which is far and away the most maudlin thing he’s ever written – and part with his choice of leads. Bloom has had plenty of chances to demonstrate he possesses the chops to be a leading man, but nothing he’s done to date helps his case much. At first, after watching him struggle through Troy and Kingdom of Heaven, I thought maybe he was limited by appearing in a lot of period pieces, but “Elizabethtown” makes it painfully obvious: Bloom isn’t much of an actor. He’s pretty enough, which has made him bankable, but he’s a lightweight, and it says something when Kirsten Dunst can act circles around you.

By the time “Elizabethtown” lurches to its (first) ending, you’re more than ready to leave the company of these quirky people. The joke’s on you, however, as you still have an epilogue consisting of Drew driving cross country, accompanied by his father’s ashes and a handpicked soundtrack designed – one suspects – for the sole purpose of allowing Crowe to show us what a keen ear for music he still has.

I’m inclined to cut Crowe some slack here. After all, “Elizabethtown” is first and foremost his paean to his dead father. Still, I can’t help but think his old man might have appreciated something more than an overwrought travelogue, no matter how good the soundtrack.

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