Elizabethtown – Fort Star Telegram

Candid Cameron

Not too long ago, Cameron Crowe could do or ‘Say Anything’ and critics would fall at his feet. But with ‘Elizabethtown,’ the ultimate populist has become a punching bag. Can he take the beating?

In his review of Almost Famous, Roger Ebert wrote about loving the movie so much he wanted to hug himself. That is the kind of reputation director Cameron Crowe had enjoyed until 2001’s Vanilla Sky, his first cinematic misstep. The movie was dark, confounding — light-years away from the sunny, funny fare for which Crowe had become widely loved ( Say Anything . . ., Single s, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous.)

Elizabethtown — an autobiographical romantic comedy set against a picture-postcard Kentucky backdrop — was supposed to be a return to his roots, and to get him back his mojo.

But after a long version of the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, reviews called it “excruciating” (Variety), a “disappointment” (Newsweek) and a “major dud; unfocused jumble.” (People)

With the world watching, Crowe — the ultimate populist — headed back to the editing room to slice 18 minutes out of the film, eager to please the people. “It could go either way,” Crowe said recently during an interview at Dallas’ Hotel Crescent Court. “I’m cool with whatever happens.” And you want to believe him, because he comes off like the best Cameron Crowe movie: sweet, goofy, earnest and endearing.

In his faded black T-shirt, brown jeans and Vans, he doesn’t so much look the part of the standard-issue Hollywood hardball player as he does one of his own rumpled, unpretentious protagonists. Which is why, despite the writing on the wall, you root for this guy.

Crowe certainly took it on the chin after Toronto, which was particularly rough when you consider what he put out there is a love letter to his late father. “Does it hurt when it’s that personal? Yeah, and it hurts when it’s not personal,” he says. “It hurts, and it’s part of your job as a writer to lay yourself open and write from the heart.”

But Crowe, whose early days as a rock writer for Rolling Stone were the basis for Almost Famous, still considers himself a journalist. And he knows, “nobody gets a free ride. And nobody should get a free ride.”

The idea for Elizabethtown was built from the stuff of Crowe’s own life: After the drubbing he got over Vanilla Sky, Crowe went on tour with his wife, Nancy Wilson of Heart (who scored Elizabethtown). On the tour bus, traveling through his dad’s old Kentucky stomping ground, he found himself moved by the landscape. “I dropped off the Heart tour, got a rental car, got lost in Kentucky, and wrote the whole story for the script in a burst,” Crowe says in the movie’s press material.

Orlando Bloom stars as Drew Baylor, a whiz kid for a Nike-type corporation whose heralded new sneaker ends up a billion-dollar flameout. In the midst of his disgrace, he gets word his dad has died in his hometown in Kentucky; his mother (Susan Sarandon) sends Drew there to retrieve his father’s body. His journey will include a daffy flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) and a slew of eccentric small-town family members.

Crowe’s Vanilla Sky debacle could be symbolized by Drew’s sneaker fiasco. And just as Drew finds redemption in Kentucky, hopes were that Elizabethtown would be Crowe’s salvation. But since the blindsiding in Toronto, Crowe has had to step back and soak up some perspective. For one thing, he can joke about the reaction now.

“We had a longer version of the movie,” he tells a reporter, his voice slipping into comical irony. ” Perhaps you read about it.”

Crowe, however, did not anticipate such a negative reaction. “Never has an editing process been so public,” Crowe says with faux theatricality. “But that was the personality of this movie. It was kind of hard to juggle all the story lines, and they saw the movie in Venice and Toronto and Deauville and accepted it, wanted it. And I kept working on the movie after the deadline to take the movie overseas, and I saw a couple extra tweaks in Toronto and I came home and did ’em.”

When slicing the 18 minutes, he had to kill plenty of his darlings, including a significant thread where Drew’s sneaker comes back into the picture. It was tough for Crowe, who really liked the urban mythic quality of the scene. But, he says, “The lamest thing is when you can’t kill the darlings, and you’re just like: ‘Love my darlings! Love my darlings! I love them!’

“I’ll probably have the longer version of Elizabethtown on DVD, but I can’t say it belongs in theaters,” he says. “As much as I love those darlings.”

And as much as the critics didn’t. “I think that fate has a really good sense of humor,” Crowe says. “We had come from Toronto where people had given us a standing ovation, and the public screening had gone really well, but then afterward you hear, well, the press — there was a less adoring reaction.”

So, still a bit battered, he decided to fulfill his promise of giving the film’s world premiere back in the real-life Elizabethtown, where part of the movie was shot. The reception blew him away. Riding into town on a bus with his wife and a reporter from Entertainment Weekly, the people of Elizabethtown lined the streets as if they were welcoming a local hero — a direct echo of one of the movie’s most touching scenes.

“It blew my mind,” Crowe says. “There were two girls who acted out the poster of the movie. They had a little red sofa by the side of the road. One was dressed up in a black suit like Orlando with a black wig and an urn. And the other was Kirsten with the champagne glass and her legs crossed; it was so sweet. I was truly in shock.”

The emotion was infectious — even the Entertainment Weekly reporter was touched, Crowe says. “I turned around and she kind of had some tears in her eyes.” Crowe’s father (who was actually from Stanton, Ky.) died unexpectedly in 1989, just after the release of Say Anything . . . “The time that’s passed allowed me to do the movie as a comedy,” the director says, “because he’s still such a part of our lives, and I like the idea that the character based on my dad would be the star of the movie, really, even though he passed away in the first frame of the movie.”

Crowe’s mother also gets a nod, in the movie’s still-overly long memorial scene. As played by Sarandon, she gets up in front of a polite but resentful audience, and does a eulogy-turned-stand-up routine, which is topped off by a tap dance number. Contrived? Nope, real life.

His mother grieved after her husband died, Crowe says, but she wanted to learn to laugh — to find an outlet for what she was going through. “So she went to this place in San Diego that was kind of like ‘The Laugh Shop’ and took courses in being a stand-up comedian. And at a certain point, the teacher took her aside and said: ‘You’re not funny. You can’t learn, really, to be brilliantly funny. It’s very rare that it happens as something you learn. Maybe you should go home and cry. And deal with what you’re going through.’

“Now, if that had happened to me, I would be crushed, and I would go home and I would cry. My mom went out and found another comedy class.”

In some ways, Crowe is following his mother’s lead with Elizabethtown. For him, the film won’t be characterized by what the critics have said so far. “The point is: Choose life, in all of its glorious roller coaster-dom. It’s ups, it’s downs, it’s hideous, it’s glorious — it’s all of that, but it’s life. . . . I think the reception of the movie will determine the reception of the movie, but it’ll always be something from my heart.”

Courtesy of the Fort Star Telegram – October 14, 2005 – Heather Svokos