Now, this is miles outside our normal wheelhouse, but in a way, a very tenuous way, it sort of fits. Although it retains a positive IMDB rating (somewhere around 6.7, last time I checked) its critical mauling is almost universal; plus, it’s the original inspiration for the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope which has made mockery of people like Zooey Deschanel much easier. I’ll get onto that in a bit, but I want to argue that this is one of those rare movies where what people could call “flaws” actually work in its favour.
First, a quick recap of the plot for people who don’t really remember it, but I’m spoiling nothing – if you can’t guess how this movie ends from the first five minutes, then shame on you. Orlando Bloom is Drew Baylor, a shoe designer for Phil DeVoss (Alec Baldwin, in a surprisingly low-key cameo). His new shoe is not just a failure but a catastrophe, costing DeVoss $972 million, and Drew his job, so he decides to go home and kill himself. After designing a rather fun little device from an exercise bike and a kitchen knife, he’s interrupted by a phone call from his sister Heather (Judy Greer) telling him of the death of Mitch, their father. Their mother Hollie (Susan Sarandon) dispatches Drew to Elizabethtown, Kentucky to supervise the funeral arrangements and cremation – there’s a whole thing about the Kentucky wing of the family not liking Hollie’s wing due to them once living in California. For a year, 27 years ago.
It’s on the plane ride there, virtually (completely?) empty, that he meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a flight attendant who sees what’s going on with Drew and basically muscles her way into his life, keeping him awake on the overnight flight with conversation and gradually drawing him out. It’s right at this moment where I think the audience will split. If you watch to the end of the flight – should my words have persuaded you to give it a try – and aren’t put off by anything, keep going because the rest of the movie will charm and delight you. If you think “there’s no way a woman as perfect as her would actually exist”, and this annoys you, then it might be best to cut your losses.
Here’s the thing. We’ve reviewed sci-fi, zombie movies, sword-and-sorcery epics, sword-and-sorcery non-epics, and slasher movies aplenty. No-one ever complains “well, it’s not like zombies could ever really exist, so this is stupid” when reviewing one of those; so to say the same about one of the characters from a comedy-romance seems equally pointless. Embrace the fantasy. Or don’t, I suppose. I’m not entirely sure men as perfect as Channing Tatum in “Magic Mike XXL” exist either, but no-one’s moaning about that.
After Claire has, for seemingly no reason, charmed Drew, she gives him directions, drawing him a map full of detail. She’s off to Hawaii, and he’s off to Elizabethtown, where he finds out how much this small town loved his father – a man who hadn’t lived there in the best part of 20 years. There’s every quirky small-town stereotype imaginable! The movie then becomes three-pronged – we get the tale of this large loving family – including a cameo from Paula Deen, celebrity TV chef /casual racist, and Paul Schneider as Drew’s cousin Jesse, still stuck in his dreams of rock stardom while being a single father to a young son; we get the hotel Drew is staying at, and the large wedding party for Chuck and Cindy that Drew finds himself sucked into with their warmth and friendship; and, of course, we get Claire.
She decides, on a whim, to ditch the trip to Hawaii and come help Drew out, and they have one of those perfect days where they see all the sights, hold hands, laugh and run around, but insist this isn’t a “thing” – she has a guy called Ben, never seen, and he has his suicidal super-failure, which is about to be revealed to the world by a business magazine in a few days. They circle and circle each other, obviously a disgustingly perfect couple, and even sleep together – her walk of non-shame through the wedding party, who cheer her on, is a lovely moment. In a movie full of lovely moments awwwww
There’s a crescendo to all the B-plots, at Mitch’s funeral. Hollie gets over her “hostility” to the other wing of the family and charms them all with stories of her husband. Jesse gets to reunite his band (and set the memorial service on fire). Happiness and quirky sentimentality reigns. But then there’s a substantial coda, where Claire gives Drew a map – well, more than a map, a huge book filled with a route and ideas of things to do and mix CDs and the story of Claire’s life, pretty much. He gets to know her as he gets to finally grieve for this father as he gets to know a section of America he’s only flown over before, and by the end, at the World’s 2nd Largest Farmers’ Market, their storyline is resolved too.
Even as I was mentioning on Facebook that I was watching this movie and loved it, a few friends chimed in. One, our very own @kilran, thinks there’s no chemistry between the two main characters, and my friend Rachel saw a pre-release test screening of it and thought it was dull. Well, Rachel, Crowe trimmed 18 minutes from the movie thanks to people like you, and greatly improved it; and @kilran’s view shows why movies like this are such a crapshoot. I thought the chemistry was fantastic and am genuinely annoyed the two of them never did anything like this again together. Looking at the list of actors who were a whisker away from Bloom’s role – Ashton Kutcher actually began filming before being let go, and Seann William Scott (who ended up making a fairly similar but far inferior film a decade later with “Just Before I Go”) was days from signing a contract when Bloom’s schedule opened up – makes you realise how “lucky” we were.
So much of this movie depends on how you feel about Claire. It’s been said that characters like her only exist in the heads of scriptwriters who want to give their brooding, sensitive leading men the push to sample all life has to offer. Or something of that sort. But, when you have that phrase to dismiss someone or something (which is what calling her a “manic pixie dream girl” is doing, in essence) you’re on the back foot before you’ve even started. Claire might not exist outside the brain of scriptwriters, but then neither does any other sort of character you’ll see in the movies. Sensitive former Special Forces single fathers with kidnapped daughters; billionaire crime-fighters; beautiful cops who are actually moles for their evil crime boss boyfriend; and so on, and so on. Because Claire is a character in a romantic tragi-comedy, there’s this weird view that her character needs to be realistic in order to be entertaining or to centre the movie or whatever excuse is given. The manic pixie dream girl is far less common a trope than “sad-sack who ends up with implausibly beautiful woman” or “douchebag boyfriend who’s a roadblock to the main couple”, of course nothing to do with gender, but it shows how far a cool name will propel a problematic idea, I suppose.
I love this film, and a rewatch last night only cemented it further. It’s sweet, funny and I thought the main couple had enough chemistry to get over any number of softer spots – the occasional dropped plotline, for one (Jesse doesn’t get enough development, and Drew’s ex-girlfriend – Jessica Biel – seems to have had a slightly more substantial part trimmed way down). “Unoriginal” is only a criticism if you’ve seen a lot of romantic comedies, and I haven’t, so this still seems fresh to an old cynic like me.
But, in a sense, none of that matters thanks to an extraordinary reading of the movie posted on Roger Ebert’s site a few years ago, even though you could not consider this for a second (as I never did) and still love the movie for what it is. Now, be prepared to go down a rabbit hole here…ready? Claire is really an angel who chooses a life with Drew over her heavenly duties, one of which is to save him from suicide. Please read the full posting (I’ll link to it afterwards) but here are a few highlights. Her first line is “you definitely may have saved my job”, because he decided not to commit suicide…she knows backroads nowhere near where she lives, in fact in a whole other state…the trip to Hawaii she passes up on is a trip back to Heaven…her personnel interview is to get her wings, or get her wings back…the defective shoes thing – sole / soul…Claire and the urn sales guy / cremator give each other an odd look…Rusty the guy on the kids’ video is God…
Okay, there are a few rough edges to the theory. But the more you analyse the movie with this in mind, the more an almost entirely separate second storyline comes into focus. Okay, it’s not like “angel chooses Earth love” storylines are super-original either, but to hide one in plain sight in the middle of your quirky little rom-tragi-com is a pretty bold move on director Cameron Crowe’s part. It’s perhaps not as great as his “Almost Famous”, but it’s far far better than its detractors would have you believe.
Rating: two enthusiastic thumbs up