Kirsten Dunst is pissed.
As Dunst, in line behind writer-director Cameron Crowe and in front of actor Orlando Bloom, enters a stuffy room in Toronto’s InterContinental Hotel to take her appointed seat, she is bombarded by the flashes and weapon-sized lenses of dozens of wire photographers. “Chris-ten! Chris-ten!” they scream, looking for a photo that will get them a cheque from a weekly glossy.
“It’s Keer-sten, you guys!” Dunst yells, invisible behind this wall of men. Finally she tells them to back off. “That’s too close!” she warns one.
Her frustration would be understandable at the best of times, but these are not the best of times. Dunst, Bloom and Crowe are gathered, along with castmate Judy Greer and producer Paula Wagner, to discuss Elizabethtown, Crowe’s latest film. It premiered in Venice a couple weeks ago, and by the time the grumbling reached the Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September, it became a wave of pure bile, critics storming through the festival proclaiming it Crowe’s worst movie ever. At the press screening, a rare announcement was made that Crowe was still editing the film, three weeks before its major release—the print about to be screened, it was cautioned, should be considered a work in progress. Elizabethtown—the press-screened work-in-progress, that is—is an unruly film doing all kinds of genre-stepping. We open with Drew Baylor (Bloom), a designer at a shoe company, getting fired. Turns out his disasterous creation will cost the company a billion dollars. Then his father dies and he must go to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, to collect the man’s ashes and bring them home to Oregon. On the flight to Louisville he meets Claire (Dunst), a theoretically charming flight attendant and requisite romantic interest. In Kentucky he finds that his family is—surprise!—a bunch of quirky yokels but they do manage to teach him a little bit about himself, as does Claire, who continues to pop up in his life.
It’s a coming of age film, a love story, a road movie and a family drama—in short, there is too damn much going on in its 138 minutes. But the claims of shit are exaggerated—Vanilla Sky and Jerry Maguire are surely worse than this, and like all Crowe films, there are outside-reality moments that stand alone as transcendent moments of filmmaking. In Almost Famous it’s the “Tiny Dancer” scene, in Elizabethtown it’s a tap dance performed at the memorial by Susan Sarandon, wife of the dead man, never accepted by his family. (It’s this memorial sequence that has reportedly seen the business end of the editing room as Elizabethtown opens this week, 18 minutes shorter than in Toronto.)
“There are so many characters and plotlines,” the affable Crowe laments, “figuring out where things go was one of the challenges. This is gonna be the movie, but the rhythm will be tighter in the second half. It’s good when there’s a banquet plate in the movie.”
Like most of Crowe’s films, especially Almost Famous, music was as integral as casting. “The music is telling your story the whole time,” he says. “I hate the scenes where the guy is dancing around the room and the song goes”—he begins singing in a whiny power-ballad voice— “‘He’s dancing around the room!’”
Crowe admits to culling from 20 or 30 proposed songs for every scene. Surprisingly, the film’s dozens of mostly alt-country tracks—from the requisite Tom Petty to My Morning Jacket, Wheat and Kathleen Edwards—were cheaper than the whole of Almost Famous’s soundtrack budget. “It was so much new music,” Crowe points out. “I tried to make the movie our own radio station.”
That goal is certainly reached, and with Elizabethtown, Crowe’s aiming for another one: progression.
“I’m starting the movie with an ending and ending the movie with a beginning,” he says. “This movie’s a little bit of a chapter-closer for me. How long can you be a warrior for optimism?”
Elizabethtown opens Friday, October 14.