From time to time, when reading a negative review of a movie I'll see the film described as a "mess", and often times I'm unsure of what a "mess" is, in terms of a movie. The instance that stands out in my memory is Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. When I was looking for reactions to that movie, I think nearly every article or blog post I read about it called it a "mess", which I found odd because I didn't find the movie messy at all.
But now, having re-watched the Cameron Crowe flick Elizabethtown, I understand better what it is to call a movie a mess, because, well, Elizabethtown is one. It's an amiable mess, to be sure. It's not the kind of mess a dog makes on the new carpet; it's the kind of mess that covers the desk of the dotty teacher we all had in school, the one we liked anyway despite his dottiness. (It was a guy teacher for me; yours might have been a woman. Doesn't matter.) Elizabethtown is a mess. But I really liked it anyway.
Orlando Bloom plays a guy named Drew who works, as the film opens, for an athletic wear company in Portland, Oregon. (It's not Nike, but as Nike is located in a Portland suburb, it's pretty clear that we're talking about Nike here.) Drew is being whisked to the corporate HQ by company helicopter so he can meet with the billionaire CEO (played by Alec Baldwin) so he can be fired. Why is this shoe designer for a hugely successful company getting fired personally by the CEO? Because his latest shoe design is a failure of epic proportions. He's designed a shoe that has been touted as the Biggest Thing EVER, only to see it universally loathed. The opening scenes show entire semis full of these shoes being returned to the HQ's warehouse. Drew has just committed Epic FAIL which will cost his company nearly a billion dollars. Oops. (The film doesn't dwell on the shoe itself much, but we do get to see it a few times, and yes, it looks ridiculous, like the shoe Prince Namor of Atlantis would put on if he was going to go for a jog.)
After this staggering and extremely public failure, Drew is feeling a tad suicidal – but just a tad – until he gets the call, later that night, that his father has passed away, back in the family hometown of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Off Drew goes to return to the home he hasn't seen in years. On the plane, he meets a flight attendant named Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who comes off as just this side of being a crazy stalker. She talks to him, gives him directions to his hometown, follows him into the terminal so she can shout the directions to him through a crowd ("Remember: Route 60-B!"). Drew gets home, and then we have the usual kind of thing in one of those stories where the city-kid returns to his small-town roots. There are folks who aren't aware that California and Oregon aren't the same place, there's the cousin in his 30s who is still at heart a teenager who wants to get the band back together, there's the doting older woman who takes one look at Our Hero and concludes that he hasn't eaten anything since 2003.
One night Drew is feeling lonely and calls everyone he knows, only to get through to no one; and then he dials the number given him by Claire, the almost-crazy flight attendant, who just happens to be off duty and can drive up to hang out with him.
Elizabethtown is a movie that just can't seem to decide what movie it wants to be, and that's how it's a mess. It feels not so much made a cobbled together out of various ideas. It's as if Cameron Crowe literally couldn't decide what story he wanted to tell, so he just said the hell with it and told all of them. Hence the result: a film that is so amiable and clearly heartfelt that I can't dislike it, but still just doesn't get into my heart the way Crowe's better films -- Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous -- do. Elizabethtown has the crashing of a wedding, long conversations by phone, stand-up comedy at a wake, "Freebird" at the same wake, a fire alarm at that same wake, and in the end, a road-trip across the country in which Drew drives places as prescribed for him by Claire, cueing up specific songs on specific CDs as he passes specific points on the trip.
I remember a review by Jeff Simon (of The Buffalo News) of this film, in which he wrote that the film is basically a mix tape. That's a very good metaphor for the movie, in the way its individual parts all seem disconnected and unrelated except for the larger connecting theme of how it all relates to Drew and his various troubles. Elizabethtown is an unfocused film that lurches from one thing to another, and yet it does so in incredibly likable fashion. Maybe that's the way that the movie is a metaphor for life itself? I dunno...but the movie is a mess, and still, I liked it a lot.