As Elizabethtown opens we learn that “a failure is simply the nonpresence of success. Any fool can accomplish a failure. But a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions.” Drew Baylor should know. After eight years of hard work, the hotshot athletic shoe designer has just made a $972 million blunder that will devastate his Oregon-based company, cost him his job and leave him suicidal. But before he can end it all he receives news that his father, while visiting family in Kentucky, has suffered a fatal heart attack. Drew’s mother and sister delegate him to fly down and tend to the particulars.
On the plane to Louisville, Drew meets a talkative flight attendant named Claire, a sweet, gregarious overachiever who adopts the troubled young man as her special project. As he tends to his father’s affairs and visits with distant relatives in a small-town setting (for moviegoers it's a tasty slice of Americana; for Drew it's alien), he occasionally reconnects with Claire out of desperation, only to find her lovably flaky optimism a salve for his wounded pride and mourning soul.
Aware that many men profit from dishonest schemes, Drew’s boss praises creativity and “success through original thought.” His company supports noble environmental causes.
The foundation of Drew’s relationship with Claire is caring, friendly conversation, not physical intimacy. (See "Sexual Content" for more on that.) She’s a cockeyed optimist, quick to meet the needs of others, even at personal cost. He is patient with Claire’s aggressive hospitality, then gracious when swarmed by overbearing but well-meaning kin in his dad’s hometown.
Drew’s cousin lets his preschool-age son run wild, demonstrating how not to raise a child. This young dad’s own father takes him aside and chides him for his immaturity and lack of discipline: “You can’t be a kid and raise a kid. He’s looking for rules from you.” He’s exactly right, though he goes a bit far when he adds, “You can’t be buddies with your own son.” Clearly there’s a balance fathers must strike between being friends and authority figures, a fact the film subtly acknowledges.
Images of death are juxtaposed with ones of exuberant life (playful interaction while choosing an urn; cavorting in a graveyard; humor during an interment and a memorial service). In doing so he pokes the specter of death in the ribs while urging us to live fully and cherish each day as a gift. (There's another side to this, though, which I'll explore in "Spiritual Content.") Putting to rest the notion that incompatibility is grounds for divorce, Drew’s mother says of her dearly departed husband, “We were complete opposites, and it worked.” A friend of Drew’s father tells fellow mourners, “Mitch wrote letters—never once sent an e-mail,” a reminder of the tactile, personal nature of old-fashioned correspondence.
A central theme is the need to deal with failure and grief in healthy ways. Claire helps Drew realize that there’s no shame in failure, even a colossal, expensive miscue like his (“Have the courage to fail big and stick around. Make ’em wonder why you’re still smiling”). Voiceovers offer similar perspective, noting that a royal blunder never occurred from a quest for mere adequacy. She tells him to acknowledge his misery, embrace it for all of five minutes, then move on. As for handling the loss of a loved one, Drew’s mother’s coping mechanism is busyness. She tries to fill the void in her life with activities and new knowledge, arguing, “All forward motion counts.” Although it seems to help in the short-term (and provides several funny moments), we can tell she’ll still have issues to confront when she eventually slows down.
Painfully aware that our days on earth with loved ones are numbered, Drew regrets letting career ambition trump time with his father. As he drives cross-country with his dad’s ashes, pausing to savor moments along the way, the son says, “Both of us working so hard, and for what? We should’ve taken this trip years ago.” Indeed, perhaps this movie will inspire ambitious twentysomethings to appreciate their parents more, pick up the phone and schedule meaningful time together.
The film’s lighthearted attempts to take the gloom and sting out of death via humor and lust for life can create a false sense of dominion over our mortality. Despite throwaway references to heaven and hell, there’s no spiritual component to Claire’s optimism or Drew’s ability to rise out of his funk. If there were no eternal issues to consider, then their approach would be reasonable (1 Cor. 15:32). However, because of the gravity of what lies beyond, it is folly—a mere distraction from the hope that can give the downtrodden true perspective on loss, failure and death (1 Cor. 15:50-58).
Elsewhere, convinced he’ll be fired Drew decides, “Success, not greatness, was the only god the entire world served.” A large statue of Christ is among the must-see landmarks on Drew’s drive home. One of the songs used in the movie is The Hollies’ “Jesus Was a Crossmaker.” At Christmas dinner the Baylor family says a blessing in unison.
Drew kisses Claire passionately, inspiring her to remark, “Most of the sex I’ve had in my life was not as personal as that kiss.” He tells her, “As great as you look tonight, you are safe with me.” The pair retires to his hotel room where, the next morning, it could be inferred that they’ve had sex. Then again, maybe all they did was share conversation and room service (dirty dishes abound). Still, the mere fact that she spends the night in his room shows disrespect for modest, healthy boundaries.
Drew’s mom’s public tribute to his dad takes a sharp, disappointing turn when she describes a neighbor having an erection while consoling her with a hug. There’s talk of salmon valiantly swimming upstream for sex.
Drew channel-surfs, catching clips from various old movies in which homicidal characters shoot each other. Having lost the will to live, he duct-tapes a kitchen knife to his exercise bike and rigs it to repeatedly stab him in the chest. It's a serious issue to contemplate suicide, yet the film treats the subject comically (and we get the distinct feeling that Drew’s attempts at dying are doomed to fail just like his athletic shoe did).
Crude or Profane Language
Just over a dozen profanities, though two of them are f-words.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A couple about to get married has rented out an entire floor of a hotel for a pre-wedding bacchanalia where alcohol flows. The groom gets tipsy. Drew gets caught pilfering a few bottles of brew from their ice tub. The bride and her friends drink wine. Drew has a drink at a bar. Drew’s aunt notes that a distant relative was an alcoholic.
Other Negative Elements
A gross-out moment finds a little boy vomiting on someone.
Writer/director Cameron Crowe (Vanilla Sky, Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) based this intensely personal romantic dramedy on feelings he experienced while visiting Kentucky after the death of his own father in 1989. As Entertainment Weekly’s Christine Spines noted, “Crowe tells stories that come from the inside out, turning his preoccupations and life experiences into modern folk tales. ... It’s almost as if his movies are anxiety dreams with happy endings, writ large.” Death. Failure. Regret. They’re the backbone of Elizabethtown, though Crowe seeks to empower the viewer to confront each with verve.
And what would a Cameron Crowe movie be without classic rock music? In addition to a fun, heavily symbolic scene that both honors and parodies the iconic stature of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” the director has dredged up underappreciated tunes by the likes of Ryan Adams, Tom Petty, Elton John and Lindsey Buckingham that meld nicely with the mood of the story and its sleepy mid-south setting. There’s even a song by local band My Morning Jacket. Speaking of which, as a former Kentucky resident myself, I enjoyed subtle touches of authentic bluegrass life that really took me back, such as hearing Claire correct Drew’s pronunciation of Louisville or watching him sip a regional soft drink. (A warning to anyone passing through E-town: Ale 8 is an acquired taste.)
But beyond the film’s cool soundtrack and intriguing aesthetic, it tackles important issues such as recovering from failure and coping with the loss of a loved one. It discourages denial, wants audiences to hang tough and take risks, and recommends that we rely on family for our safety net. “What this movie does,” says star Orlando Bloom, “is bring you into that world of ‘What is really more important?’ For Drew it’s been work and career and suddenly he’s introduced to his family in a whole new way.” Through the eyes of distant kin, he even discovers things about his own father that he never knew before.
The sad part is that Drew learns to appreciate his dad a little too late. Hence, the lesson for the rest of us is to seize the day. Redeem the time. Seeing Bloom’s character tooling around the countryside with his father’s ashes in the passenger seat is a lot like watching Ray Kinsella playing catch with his dad at the end of Field of Dreams. It makes you want to call home while there’s still a home to call.
In spite of all of this meaty, bittersweet food for thought, some families, especially those with tweens enamored with Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings) and Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man), may determine (appropriately so) that ambiguous sexual ethics and a few choice words are sufficient reason to bypass exit 60B and the home cookin’ of Elizabethtown.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Orlando Bloom as Drew Baylor; Kirsten Dunst as Claire Colburn; Susan Sarandon as Hollie Baylor; Alec Baldwin as Phil DeVoss; Jessica Biel as Ellen; Judy Greer as Heather Baylor; Bruce McGill as Bill Banyon