- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

I liked Drew Baylor better when he was a sports agent by the name of “Jerry Maguire.” Now he’s an athletic shoe designer who winds up on his ear not because of runaway idealism, but rather a crushing marketplace verdict: His latest kicks are worse than none at all.

Writer-director Cameron Crowe sure knows how to deliver bourgeois pain — and then ratchet that pain into a state of perfect grace, a gift from the gods of love and good tunes.

But Drew (Orlando Bloom) must endure more than a career crisis in “Elizabethtown.” Soon after learning of the financial meltdown he has set in motion (Alec Baldwin delivers the bad news in a delicious CEO cameo), he’s faced with the big kahuna of familial deaths, that of his father, who passed away while visiting relatives in the Kentucky town in the film’s title.

Because Drew’s mother (a flighty Susan Sarandon) is estranged from her Kentuckian in-laws, and his sister (an underused Judy Greer) is consumed with baby-rearing, it’s left to Drew to retrieve his father’s body, cremate it and bring dad’s ashes back to Portland, Ore.

It would be a straightforward-enough task were it not for the sticky allure of a marvelously grotesque extended family (played by trusty character actors such as Bruce McGill plus a cast of regional actors) that turns out to be exactly what Drew needs in his time of distress.

Thus, what initially seems like Mr. Crowe trying to pass off a hot young star as one of “Jerry’s” kids becomes instead something bigger — bigger even than “You complete me.” By its overdue end, “Lizzie” plants a sloppy kiss on the mythos of the American heartland.

On his red-eye to Elizabethtown, a grassy hamlet outside of Louisville, Drew also meets this year’s Renee Zellweger — Kirsten Dunst, who plays the extraordinarily upbeat flight attendant Claire. Although Drew wants nothing more than shut-eye on the flight, Claire, as angelic as she is chatty, sees a soul in distress.

After an all-night yak-fest over cell phones, Mr. Crowe has them meet in various places, including Drew’s hotel, where the director indulges a weakness for plot marginalia — in this case an all-weekend wedding celebration that doubles as a redneck convention.

Mr. Crowe is far more soulful among the extended Baylors, who make up in crackling eccentricity what Mr. Bloom, hiding his affectless Englishness, lacks in heartbeat. Those who loved young Jonathan Lipnicki in “Jerry Maguire” are in for another treat with child-actor twins Maxwell and Reid Steen, who play the delightfully named family hellion Samson.

“Elizabethtown” would have done well to end after an all-bases-covered tribute to the deceased gives us a tap-dance recital from Miss Sarandon and a raucous rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s bombastic FM radio staple “Free Bird.”

Instead, there’s an overlong coda that tries to wrap its arms around not merely the Baylors, but the entire country. Mr. Crowe, after displaying such a light touch with issues of death, suicide and family roots, nearly drowns the movie in ersatz gravity as he sends Drew on a road trip to sacred American sites such as the motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated and the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

Mr. Crowe, a former rock critic, should have known better. If you’re going to cop to demands for “Free Bird,” there’s no coming back for an encore.

**

TITLE: “Elizabethtown”

RATING: PG-13 (Profanity and some sexual references)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Produced by Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner and Mr. Crowe. Cinematography by John Toll. Score by Nancy Wilson.

RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.elizabethtown.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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