The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown

The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown

"As somebody once said: There's a difference between a failure and a fiasco. A failure is simply the non-presence of success. Any fool can accomplish failure. But a fee-ass-scoe, a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folk tale told to others that makes other people feel more alive because. It. Didn't. Happen. To. Them." Orlando Bloom intones at the very beginning of Elizabethtown.

Elizabethtown then sets about illustrating by example just what a bona fide fiasco looks and feels like. The film was seemingly cursed from its inception. Ashton Kutcher and Jane Fonda were cast, then dropped out of the lead roles of a soulful superstar shoe designer-turned-suicidal pariah who travels to the South to bury his dead father and and his mother, an eccentric widow who devolves into a manic hysteria once her husband dies. Like Jerry Maguire, it's a morality play about a cocky young man humanized by failure who becomes a success as a human being only after failing spectacularly in business. After a disastrous early screening at the Toronto Film Festival, the film was drastically shortened and its ending altered.

So when Elizabethtown limped into theaters it was already a wounded duck, as queasily personal and intimate as a teenage girl's diary. Going into the film, I remember thinking, "How bad can a Cameron Crowe movie be?" Before Elizabethtown, I could say without reservation that Crowe was one of my favorite filmmakers. Hell, I don't just love many of Crowe's movies: I want to live in his world. For the universe of Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire and Say Anything is an infinitely humane realm ruled by an endlessly benevolent deity: Crowe himself. It's a world where no existential quandary is so great that it can't be solved by the perfect combination of pop song and dream girl, a world of giddy pop epiphanies and gentle humanism unencumbered by protective irony or sneering cynicism.

In Elizabethtown, all of Crowe's formidable virtues as a filmmaker work against him. His palpable affection for his characters–always one of his most admirable traits–morphs into a kind of pathological emotional neediness. "Love me, love me, love me!" screams every frame and every character. Elizabethtown feels like an X-ray of Crowe's soul set to the soundtrack of his life.

Crowe has never been afraid to go for big, pop-operatic moments that skip delirously past realism as they lunge for greatness. There's nothing remotely naturalistic about lines like Jerry Maguire's "You complete me," "You had me at hello," and "Show me the money," or John Cusack playing "In Your Eyes" on a boom box outside Ione Skye's window in Say Anything.

But in Elizabethtown the big setpieces and flashy lines couldn't have backfired more dramatically. For me, the definitive scene in Elizabethtown involves Susan Sarandon tap-dancing to "Moon River" at her husband's memorial service and delivering a mildly risqué stand-up comedy routine that climaxes with her reciting the word "boner" twice, a performance that has the white Southerners in attendance falling out of their seats with laughter and hooting and hollering like balcony-dwellers at laughing-gas night at The Apollo. It's an extraordinarily risky scene that encapsulates the film in a nutshell. If it works, it's the kind of showstopper people talk about for decades to come. But if it doesn't work, it just looks insane and wrong. And, oh Lordy, does Sarandon's big scene not work.

Then again, Sarandon's character is the very embodiment of gritty neo-realism compared to Kirsten Dunst's stewardess/love interest. Dunst embodies a character type I like to call The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (see Natalie Portman in Garden State for another prime example). The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family. As for me, well, let's just say I'm not going to propose to Dunst's psychotically chipper waitress in the sky any time soon.

Elizabethtown shows what happens when a gifted writer-director lets his big ol' heart do his brain's work for him. Yet the film stuck with me in ways genuinely successful films haven't. I find myself talking and thinking about it all the time. Heck, the origins of this whole project began with Elizabethtown. By the time Bloom embarks on an epic road-trip set to a mix-tape of Crowe's favorite songs, Elizabethtown was starting to barrel its way through my formidable defenses. So is Elizabethtown a success? Fuck no, but it's a heartfelt debacle of rare ambition, sincerity and vision.

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success?: Fiasco