It’s too bad that much of the discussion surrounding Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown is going to be about the 20 minutes he cut from the movie just prior to its release—but then, Crowe’s prior editing woes have made movie buffs more aware of the big effects of small cuts. The two-hour version of 2000’s Almost Famous was an engaging but overly slight sketch of Crowe’s life as a teenage rock journalist. The two-hour-and-40-minute version that hit DVD a year later was an almost entirely different movie, and not just because the writer-director added back scenes that provided more scope; he also restored little pauses and reaction shots that made the movie breathe. Almost Famous went from merely good to one of the best American movies of recent years.
The version of Elizabethtown that I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival in September was shaped by test screenings of an even earlier, shorter version that had audiences clamoring for more information. In TIFF’s two-hour-and-15-minute version, shoe designer Drew Baylor (played by Orlando Bloom) gets fired from his job after a new wide-soled shoe flops catastrophically, and he recovers from his failure by traveling to Elizabethtown, Ky., to pick up the body of his recently deceased father. While there, he hangs out with his quirky relatives and meets the preternaturally charming stewardess Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst), who fills his head with happy thoughts over the course of about a half-dozen music montages. After critics at Toronto complained that the movie was too long, too repetitive and too sappy, Crowe tightened it up some for general release. The just-under-two-hour version loses some directionless scenes of funeral business, but the most significant excision is a poetic coda for Drew’s shoe, which becomes a cult success after a kid snips a little notch out of the sole and makes it whistle.
I wish I could say that Crowe’s cuts make Elizabethtown whistle, but alas, that’s just a deleted scene. The movie may well succeed with the Garden State crowd—both movies are very “emo”—but just as with the shorter Almost Famous, the brisker Elizabethtown feels a little off. Minor trimming in some scenes disrupts Crowe’s comic timing, and the visit to Elizabethtown now seems so truncated that the place’s special appeal has been largely lost. The triumphant climax to the memorial service—My Morning Jacket performing “Free Bird”—moved me almost to tears the first time I saw it, but the second time, I became more impatient with some of the baggy-pants farce that accompanies the scene.
In fact, a lot of the scenes in Elizabethtown peter out into broad, flat comedy. There are problems here that editing just can’t fix. Bloom is way too soft and indistinct to play a suicidal genius, while Dunst plays the free-spirited Claire as borderline psychotic. Their romance is both implausible and more than a little silly. And Crowe’s gushing salute to beleaguered visionaries seems a bit too much like the director patting himself on the back after the mixed reception to his last movie, Vanilla Sky.
On the other hand, implausibility and self-congratulation have always been reliable weapons in the Cameron Crowe arsenal. Crowe considers himself the cinematic heir to Billy Wilder, and though movies like Say Anything and Jerry Maguire are full of small, recognizable human moments, they’re placed in the context of old-fashioned, play-to-the-back-row Hollywood entertainment. At times, Elizabethtown resembles one of those late-period Wilders, where the raucous Americana has turned a little, becoming surreal and untrustworthy. Elizabethtown involves a funeral, a wedding and a family reunion, and it captures the feel of an overemotional weekend, where everyone’s too open and people say things that’ll later make them cringe.
Crowe navigates those rocky straits the way he always does: by reaching for his iPod. A lot of filmmakers of Crowe’s generation use pop music well, but few have his commitment to explaining the world through the songs we all sing. Because of the preponderance of music early in Elizabethtown, some viewers have been impatient with the extended road trip and mixtape that end the film, but that’s where the heart of the story really is. (If Crowe had been gutsy, he could’ve recut the film to start with the road trip and make everything else a flashback.) As Drew drives across the U.S., he reconnects with our shared cultural heritage by driving over the bridge where singer Jeff Buckley died and letting the open roads of Arkansas flow in to the sounds of a Wheat song.
Despite his indecision as an editor and his awkward ultra-humanism, Crowe gets where he intends to go in the final 20 minutes of Elizabethtown. Throughout the movie, people remind the hero that family is what matters most. And in a few bold strokes at the end, Crowe reveals the truth about our big-hearted, pop-loving country: we are all family.