Only a truly great director can make a film of high artistic merit, filled with personality and memorable scenes, that's still a borderline disaster. (Think One From The Heart or 1941.) So the heartfelt and woefully miscalculated Elizabethtown may be the film that marks Cameron Crowe's arrival as a truly great director. It's filled with artificial moments but genuine emotions, contrived situations that somehow feel true to life, and a central relationship that's impossible not to root for, but still rings false. It's a mess, but one that's completely compelling on its own misguided, achingly sincere terms.
Almost in anticipation, Orlando Bloom stars as a shoe designer whose unique vision has set him up for tremendous failure. The film opens as the full scale of that failure has begun to sink in. (His boss, Alec Baldwin, drives it home with an imitation of shit hitting a fan.) On the brink of suicide, Bloom receives word that his dad died of a heart attack while visiting his family in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Charged by mom Susan Sarandon—who grieves through manic activity—with retrieving the ashes, Bloom hops on the next plane to Louisville. En route, he meets a quirky stewardess (Kirsten Dunst) who takes an unusually intense interest in his situation.
Once in Elizabethtown, Bloom begins to get reacquainted with family he hasn't seen in years while continuing a cell-phone flirtation with Dunst. He also spends a lot of time driving around, to the accompaniment of Elton John, Ryan Adams, and other favorite Crowe artists. At times, this seems to be the reason the movie was made. Drawing from his own experiences, Crowe has a real feel for small-town Southern family life, with its casseroles and long-standing grudges, but the Kentucky relatives often just drift to the back of the action. That leaves Bloom and Dunst to carry the film's weight, and that's a problem. Bloom is never more than an appealing blank, while Dunst, though as effortlessly charismatic as ever, plays a character who appears to exist only so she can appear at just the right moment to help Bloom. She makes Natalie Portman's Garden State heroine look as complex and conflicted as Hedda Gabler. The film's worst moments are like watching a smiley face cheer up a mannequin.
Yet—and this is a big yet—it kind of works anyway. That's partly because Crowe has grown into a director of remarkable technical skill, but mostly because he's made a film whose many flaws almost get overshadowed by its quivering sincerity, unfailing warm-heartedness, and grand, daring gestures. There are puppies easier to hate than Elizabethtown. Of course, that doesn't make it the film of great consequence that it clearly wants to be. But its sweet aspirations make it difficult to dislike even its most embarrassing moments.