Throwback Thursday: More than a ‘Garden State’ ripoff, Crowe’s ‘Elizabethtown’ (2005) has aged well (Movie review)

In our Throwback Thursday series, we’re looking back at movies, TV shows, books or comics that are more than a year old and don’t fit with our regular “flashback” features. Maybe we missed it when it was new, or we want to revisit an old favorite. Basically, we’re reviewing old stuff because we feel like it.

“Elizabethtown’s” existence in 2005 ticked me off, since, as a huge “Garden State” fan, I felt it was ripping off that film’s plot of a depressive young man who travels to a small town for his parent’s funeral and is saved by his dream girl. While the plot is indeed the same, Crowe is obviously not ripping off Zach Braff; it’s a coincidence. Still, I wasn’t ready to appreciate “Elizabethtown” then. But I like it quite a lot now that time has passed.

Make no mistake, this is a stylized film that could easily be one person’s all-time favorite and another person’s garbage. Crowe asks us to trust him, to embark on his ride without questioning it. For starters, shoe designer Drew (Orlando Bloom, who – based on his easy, natural performance here – should’ve become a bigger star) costs his company $1 billion with his failed footwear. In what mega-corporation is a single person responsible for a product?

And who tries to commit suicide by duct-taping a knife to an exercise bike?

Drew travels from Oregon – where his boss (Alec Baldwin) is a stand-in for Nike’s Phil Knight – to Elizabethtown, Ky., to pick up the body of his father, who had died from a heart attack while visiting relatives. Everyone in town waves at Drew as he arrives, guiding him to his destination. (In real life, it’s a town of 30,000 people.) They all know and love Drew’s father, even though he moved away 30 years ago to raise his family on the West Coast.

And of course, the biggest divergence from reality is Manic Pixie Dream Girl Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who is far from the first MPDG (although, interestingly, Nathan Rabin coined the term in his review of this film), but she may be the most perfect, straight-down-the-middle example. (The argument that the film is a spiritual allegory, with Claire as an angel, would explain why she comes off this way.)

Natalie Portman’s Sam in “Garden State” has some character traits; I imagine her as having a life before meeting Braff’s Andrew. But flight attendant Claire is so brazenly in “Elizabethtown” to lift Drew from suicidal aims and invigorate his zest for life that – up until the credits roll – I was not 100 percent sure she isn’t a supernatural guide. The more I think about it, though, that would be redundant. Always saying the right thing, never judging Drew harshly, never asking anything from him (but doing all kinds of perfect things he doesn’t ask for), Claire is obviously not a type of person who exists in reality. But that’s OK, because it’s a movie – and she fits particularly well in this one because of its earnest positivity.

“Elizabethtown” isn’t nearly as tight (it’s more than 2 hours long, for some reason) as “Garden State” or as sharp as Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” but it has spirit. Throw in Crowe’s knack for picking the perfect song (for example, the Concretes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” at the shoe-launch party where Drew meets Jessica Biel’s Ellen) and even though I know he’s trying really hard to win me over, it’s hard to not be won over.

This is a voiceover-peppered movie where Drew mentally collects “last looks” (people meeting your eyes when they think they’ll never see you again), and Claire mimes snapping photos of Drew. Drew and Claire talk all night on the phone without losing interest. Crowe also shoehorns in the notion that Drew and Claire are “substitute people” – the ones who are in the lives of others when needed, but are not the hero of the story. That doesn’t quite work, because we don’t see Ben (Claire’s supposed husband) and we don’t keep up with Ellen. So these protagonists can’t be substitutes from our point of view – we’re watching only them.

Love or loathe the MPDG trope, but there’s no question Dunst goes all out, starting with Claire’s instant friendliness toward Drew on a red-eye flight. And Crowe doesn’t hold back in the film’s final section, as Drew drives across the country, guided by detailed directions, an itinerary and mix CDs meticulously and artistically crafted by Claire. No actual human being would do this, but that’s why the fantasy is irresistible.

“Elizabethtown” is a fantasy, but it’s also perhaps about the relative value of creating fantasies in the real world. Does Ben really exist? (Claire dodges the question when Drew asks it, mirroring the viewer’s curiosity.) Probably about as much as Drew’s “girlfriend” Ellen does. (Ellen loses interest when Drew’s shoe bombs.)

The mysteries of whether Ben or even Claire herself are real melt away when Drew and Claire meet again and embrace at a Farmers’ Market somewhere in Middle America and “Elizabethtown” becomes worthy of being a Valentine’s Day blog post. Are we watching two “substitute people” becoming real people through love? Was Claire put on Earth to save Drew? The answers are arguably as unimportant as whether the Big Misunderstanding could’ve been avoided in a female-targeted rom-com. And whether MPDGs are unhealthy or harmless to sensitive male viewers is a question for another day. The finish line is too satisfying to worry much about it.

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