The 2005 film Elizabethtown might be the most peculiar film I’ve ever seen. Not because of the film itself, but because for a film with a star-studded cast and a $45 million budget, it only made $52 million at the box office globally. In other words, it was a total bust domestically. As for critics, it holds a piddling 28 percent on Rottentomatoes with the critical consensus reading, “This story of a floundering shoe designer who returns home for a family tragedy gets lost in undeveloped plot lines and lackluster performances.”
Here’s my suspicion: Audience members and critics alike aren’t going to take too well to dark humor and suicide. Because the film is sort of predicated on dark humor and suicide. That’s the gear that gets this film going. Drew (played by Orlando Bloom), the shoe designer who apparently bombed with the newest design, cost the company nearly a billion dollars (and his girlfriend, Ellen (played by Jessica Biel) hates his guts, and so, he plans to kill himself with an elaborate exercise bike rigged knife to the heart.
As the suicide is about to happen, literally, Drew gets a phone call that his father has died in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and he is tasked with retrieving the body for his mother, Hollie (played by the always scene-stealer Susan Sarandon). The thing about suicide, from what I’ve gathered, is that often times, it genuinely is that last second phone call or text or email or knock at the door that prevents someone from taking that last, irreversible step into the abyss. And I like to think, any parent would be okay with the arrangement here. That is, Drew’s dad, if he knew having a heart attack and dying would be what saves his son from killing himself, I’m sure he’d be more than willing to go along with that arrangement.
However, unlike audience members and critics, I was glued right away to the screen and laughing at the dark humor and intrigued by the suicide setup. And then, as Drew’s flying to Kentucky, he meets Claire (played by the charming Kirsten Dunst), and she’s so peculiar and weird and idiosyncratic, and that plays into the overall vibe of the film.
More or less, as the film progresses, the emergence of Claire in Drew’s life helps him to bring that one foot he had in the grave back out of the grave, shake the dirt off, and chase after Claire.
There’s been theories about Claire. First, from esteemed film critic Roger Ebert that Claire is an angel sent to help Drew. And that’s meant as a positive reading of both Claire and the film. You can read his full review here, which I find quite compelling. I don’t think the director, Cameron Crowe, intended her to be an angel, but I wouldn’t begrudge someone reading it that way.
Then there’s Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club who christens Claire a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” wherein, Claire exists as this shallow character only to help Drew. She has no desires or wants of her own. That’s basically Ebert’s angel hypothesis, but taken in a negative direction. (For the record, I think deeming Claire “manic” is rather offensive, but to his credit, years later, Rabin tried to retract the term.)
I don’t think Claire is a shallow character. There’s a difference between shallowness and subtleness. There’s a difference between a cardboard cutout and something with more depth unseen. There are signs throughout the film that Claire’s existence is more than merely perfunctory to help Drew. She’s trying to find her own place within the world. After all, what is the place of a stewardess who is not grounded? Drew helps her in that way, as much as she helps him. It’s just, she’s not coming back from something as dramatic as a potential suicide.
Also, you can’t talk about Elizabethtown without mentioning the soundtrack. As the kids say, virtually every song on the soundtrack, which is used aplenty, is a “banger.” I mean, you have Tom Petty, Elton John, Ryan Adams, The Temptations … what more do you need? Off the top of my head, my favorite song, though, was perhaps, “Same In Any Language,” by I Nine.
So, if you’re into dark humor, a little sappy love romance, and some kick-ass music, I highly recommend Elizabethtown. I think 16 years later, it’s do a reappraisal.