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Elizabethtown – a superb little sleeper of a movie

a moment of movie magic

a moment of movie magic

Elizabethtown – Director Cameron Crowe

(BBC Prize Review)

Elizabethtown is a great, great movie. In both senses. It will make you laugh, and cry, and will keep surprising you throughout. It fits no pigeonholes. A bit like life really. But it takes a while to adjust to its quirky, eccentricities of tone and narrative. There’s nothing wrong with the first 30 minutes of the movie but at that stage you’ll probably think my opening remarks are crazy. You keep wondering where it’s going and then it engages you and draws you in. Stop fretting about where we’re going it seems to say, and I’ll show you interesting, illuminating things about relationships, about life, without telling you about them. So often movies reflect our cultural fiction that our lives are a narrative, a story, with a meaning to be discovered rather than created. Elizabethtown is much nearer the truth: the sense of what we see and do is found not in what the world does to us but how we respond to it. But first you have to re-learn how to look.

If this sounds heavy, philosophical tosh that’s me not the movie. It has a lightness of touch and tenderness of feeling that is irresistible. If the image of a newly widowed, middle aged woman tap-dancing to ‘Moon River’ at a memorial dinner for her dead husband sounds like Mel Brooks on a bad day, let me tell you it will clutch at your heart and moisten your eye. Of course it does no harm that the widow in question is played by the superb Susan Sarandon, who, in a relatively small role has never been better. The little sequence above is a great moment of cinema and will run and run.

It is no surprise that Sarandon is excellent, but Kirsten Dunst is a revelation. Her quirky Clare, is a Holly Golightly for today. Funny, sad, elusive, and yes at times exasperating. But playing against a screwed-up understated Orlando Bloom, their oddball relationship strikes an engaging note of ragged reality. Indeed a test case of whether you can buy into this deeply romantic tone is I guess how you feel about Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hate that and you’ll hate this. And vice versa. I love BAT but there are more layers to Elizabethtown. In its bitter-sweet perceptive way, Crowe’s screenplay has more than a echo of Capote. And its strange, motley crew of almost randomly jumbled together characters also says much, it seems to me, about America, its contradictions and unities. Its heart, if you will. As an idea, there is nothing earth-shattering about the thought that there is more to life than work and alpha-male aggressive over-achievement. But making the alternative seem the rational, sensible sane view of life is a tough call. As Union Leader Jimmy Reid once famously remarked “the rat-race is for rats.” George W Bush, Neo-Conservative, Corporate America it ain’t. A movie for people who get Charlie Brown. And cherish the fact that he too is profoundly ‘American’.

Elizabethtown has a soundtrack to die for. Cameron Crow’s missus Nancy Wilson sings and assembles some great music to underscore perfectly the film’s narrative tone. This film exudes a love of music and pretentious though it sounds, a love of life. It is downbeat, unfussy, and in a very distinctive way, brilliantly integrates the essential elements of a good movie: excellent writing, strong, inventive performances, and sharp, pacey editing. But in the end it is the unity of these elements that make this one special. And just as in the world of music, the singer-songwriter has come to represent a popular music paradigm of the synthesis of words and music, so writer-director Crowe has assembled a satisfying cinematic whole that is far more than the sum of its undeniably good parts. And the performers bring much to the party, as despite the undoubted quality of the writing, I suspect on the page, it would look as if there was simply nothing there.

Elizabethtown may prove to be a sleeper at the box-office, but to this reviewer there is a lot more to this one than immediately meets the eye and even on that level it is as funny, touching, inventive a movie as you’ll see this year. Don’t miss it.

Zettel 2005

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