This was the beginning of the end for Cameron Crowe. He has made two movies since, and neither was terribly well received, but it was Elizabethtown that went from anticipation to antipathy, marking what seems to be the rest of his career. It didn’t help that the reception at the Toronto International Film Festival was so resoundingly negative that Crowe did an emergency cut that drastically reduced the film’s length before its wide release.
The movie begins with the main character, Drew Baylor, discussing the difference between a failure and a fiasco, fodder for critics who didn’t like the film overall. Drew was the lead designer on a new type of shoe that was met with critical anticipation and then derision once it was released, costing the Mercury Shoe Company $972 million. He contemplates suicide and comes up with a plan involving a kitchen knife and an exercise bike when his sister calls with news of his father’s death in Kentucky. Setting out to accomplish the one goal of bringing his father’s body back to Oregon for cremation and spreading his ashes at sea, he flies to Louisville. On the flight he meets Claire.
A lot of the critical drubbing the movie received was over Claire. It went so far as a critic ended up coining the term “Manic Pixie Dreamgirl” in direct response to this film. I’ll admit that Claire is a problem in the film, even with my interpretation that she doesn’t actually exist. She’s too available, too cute, too open to Drew too early, and probably written as a real person originally with some scenes that would have undermined my theory about her reality thrown to the cutting room floor. She sees Drew completely alone in coach on an overnight flight, begs him to come to first class, draws him a map to the small town of Elizabethtown, and gives him her number. This is a lot, but she ends up disappearing from the film for a good while, blunting that impact and impression.
Drew goes home, and this is where the film works best. Isolated from his father’s extended family for pretty much his whole life, he suddenly finds a huge warm embrace to greet him. Cousins, uncles, aunts, and family friends he has only the vaguest of memories of are all incredibly happy to see the son of the man they loved. This feels genuine and infectious, reminding me of when I would go to see my own father’s family in Tennessee. There are a lot of people with a lot of implied history who all seem to know Drew’s father better than Drew ever did. This ends up matching rather well with Drew’s own personal journey dealing with his own failure and the thought that he has nothing to live for anymore. The death of his father provides him a look at new life he had forgotten with years of work. It’s not new stuff, but it’s solidly told.
Drew goes to his hotel and has an all night conversation with Claire after he feels alone and ends up calling everyone he can just to have a conversation. They talk and talk in an extended montage that actually does feel rather sweet as they go from one topic to the next from shot to shot. It implies the sort of easy connection between two people meant to be together. It’s nice.
The rest of Drew’s trip to Elizabethtown is dominated by the final discussions on what to do with his father’s body with him standing strong on his father’s final wishes for cremation, only to succumb to his family’s wishes for burial in Elizabethtown too late to make a difference. The final wake and celebration of the man’s life is actually a really nice demonstration of how people mourn in different ways, the centerpiece being Drew’s mother using comedy to tell the estranged family why she loved her husband and how she’ll miss him. It’s odd and sweet.
Claire ends up dominating the last half hour of the film when she gives Drew an extremely detailed roadmap that she apparently created in an evening that takes Drew from Elizabethtown all the way back to Oregon, planned to the minute. He follows it, releasing bits of his father’s ashes at certain spots, and eventually meeting Claire at the second largest flea market in the world. I’m not going to say the movie falls apart in this final half hour, but it’s a weak ending. The movie seems to have lost any real focus by turning Drew’s attention to a road trip and bits of Southern history like the visit to the hotel where Martin Luther King Junior was murdered. It feels random and out of place. Perhaps MLK’s death is supposed to indicate that he died for something, a great victory in the end, with Drew’s thoughts of suicide being selfish, but it’s not really made clear and feels like an inappropriate way to use the assassination of a beloved figure. There had been bits of talk about Drew having planned a road trip with his father before his death, but it’s Claire’s voice that dominates the soundtrack, making it more about her than about Drew. I wonder if making it Drew saying the exact same things would have helped refocus the journey on where it should have been.
Now, my theory that Claire doesn’t actually exist. She interacts almost exclusively with Drew. The only other people she ever speaks to are the engaged couple that are on the same floor as Drew in the hotel. She’s never even seen by Drew’s family or even talked about with them. Combined with the writing that makes her the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, an unrealistic ideal of a movie creation that doesn’t feel like a real woman, and it seems like a decent interpretation of her character that she actually ends up representing part of Drew’s psyche rather than an actual person. She appears when thoughts of perhaps not ending it all start to perk up, and even the last shot of the film seems to underline that a bit. Drew finally gets some more voiceover in the ending, and his last word, “life”, cuts to him embracing Claire in that flea market. Even in the assumption that she’s real, she obviously is meant to represent more than just a woman, but Drew embracing life after his week in Kentucky. Is reading her as unreal a critical cover for bad writing? Maybe, but I do think it works.
The movie has its issues, but it is an open-hearted exploration of life after failure. That earnestness also seems to rub some people the wrong way, but I embrace it.