'Elizabethtown,' Way South of 'Garden State'

Kirsten Dunst, left, pursues Orlando Bloom in the romantic comedy
Kirsten Dunst, left, pursues Orlando Bloom in the romantic comedy "Elizabethtown." (By Neal Preston -- Paramount Pictures, Via Reuters)

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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 14, 2005

To swallow "Elizabethtown" without experiencing a sharp tummy cramp of disbelief, you have to accept Orlando Bloom as a tormented soul. Why, the boy is so emotionally hobbled he can't respond to the blond, uber-adorable Kirsten Dunst.

Let's delve into Orlando's pain, shall we? He's Drew Baylor, a shoe designer from Oregon whose latest creation has incurred company losses of close to $1 billion and led to his firing. Despondent, he drives home and seats himself on a Rube Goldbergian suicide device -- an exercycle with a mounted dagger rigged to stab the rider. All one has to do is pedal furiously. This is not what your fitness instructor means by negative gain.

This is exactly when the phone rings. No, it's not Bloom's agent telling him to leave the set before his career implodes, it's Drew's sister Heather (Judy Greer), who informs Drew that their father, Mitchell, has passed away. It happened while he was visiting his old friends and relatives in Elizabethtown, Ky. Heather says Drew's mother, Hollie (Susan Sarandon) would like her son to fly to Elizabethtown, cremate Mitch and bring his ashes home to Oregon. It would help, too, if he made nice with the Kentucky kin; they're still mad at Hollie for stealing Mitch away, oh, 20 years ago.

So Drew is off the suicide machine and onto the plane to Kentucky. Enter Dunst, as Claire, a flight attendant who, judging by her wide grin, seems to be lying in wait for him. Drew's the only passenger on this flight (like that ever happens), which gives her time to talk to Drew about her obsession with the mystique of names, the best way to drive to Elizabethtown and, most importantly, the road map to her big, home-fried heart.

Drew, still mopey about the shoe catastrophe and thinking about his Elizabethtown mission, isn't responsive at first. But not long after he meets his father's people and checks into a hotel, loneliness sets in. He reaches for the phone number Claire left him and . . . oh, you know.

Writer-director Cameron Crowe's most recent stumble, "Vanilla Sky," continues without interruption into "Elizabethtown." It's hard to believe the creative mind that gave us "Almost Famous," "Jerry Maguire," "Say Anything" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" looked up with satisfaction after typing 117 pages of this.

Speaking of killer exercycles, "Elizabethtown" comes across as little more than repedaled "Garden State." In both films, a prodigal son of sorts returns to the old home state because of the death of a parent, gets caught up in a world of offbeat characters and is ultimately saved by the love of an eccentric young woman.

The crucial difference? "Garden State" was a good movie. Writer-director Zach Braff made an appealing returning son, and Natalie Portman was a charm as his nutballish savior. You really believed she could redeem souls. The locals (from New Jersey) were wonderfully memorable: Remember Peter Saarsgard as the gravedigger who steals necklaces from the dead?

In "Elizabethtown," the Kentucky contingent, including Aunt Dora (Paula Deen), Uncle Dale (Loudon Wainwright III), cousin Bill (Bruce McGill) and Lynyrd Skynrd cover band singer Jessie (Paul Schneider), practically carries the word "zany" aloft on billboards. The movie's best shot at wild-card endearment comes from Sarandon's Hollie, who makes the trip to Elizabethtown to deliver a heartfelt speech about Mitch. Her intended showstopper is a brand new tap-dance shuffle -- to "Moon River" -- and she brings the house down, but only because the actors were paid to applaud.

Bloom's inability to convey convincing emotion is manifest; if he has any allure in this movie, it's got to be the hair gel. Dunst is an appealing presence in most movies, but here she's reduced to a strangely ethereal stalker. She's always appearing behind him, and eventually he becomes happy to see her, but the phrase "restraining order" comes to mind. For all the time she and Bloom spend together, there is surprisingly little magic -- just the surface appeal of two attractive people making (or almost making) kissy face. The deepest banter exchanged between them, in fact, comes at the end of a mammoth cell-phone conversation.

"Should we hang up now?" Claire asks.

Definitely.

Elizabethtown (117 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for profanity and some sexual references.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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