Tuesday, October 18, 2005

"Elizabethtown" Meanders, "Violence" Sears


directed by Cameron Crowe
starring Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Alec Baldwin, others

Cameron Crowe has always been what I call a wise sentimentalist. By this I mean he retains an unwavering faith in the human ability to connect with one another—while at the same time fully recognizing our equally incredible capacity to miscommunicate and treat each other like shit. In this respect, he’s the natural heir of writers like E.M. Forster and, to a lesser extent, George Bernard Shaw—humanists who missed no opportunity to mock the follies and flaws of the societies they inhabited or the characters they created, yet were fundamentally sympathetic to the latter. Personally, I prefer Crowe’s brand of optimism to the darker visions of edgier filmmakers. He may see the world through rose-tinted glasses, but that doesn’t mean they lack 20/20 vision.

Sadly, “Elizabethtown” is far from top-drawer Crowe, being a good deal more muddled and soft-focused than most of his previous work (e.g., “Almost Famous,” “Jerry Maguire,” “Singles,” “Say Anything”). It’s not the premise that’s lacking. The setup, after all, presents classic Crowe territory. A young man (Orlando Bloom) groomed and hand-picked for spectacular success as a footwear designer instead delivers a spectacular failure—in the form of a much-ballyhooed athletic shoe that, as his boss (Alec Baldwin) reminds him, has cost the company nearly $1 billion in losses. Reeling from the shock and contemplating a colorfully grim form of suicide, the young man, Drew Baylor, is interrupted by a call from his sister (Judy Greer), who informs him that their father died while visiting family in Kentucky. Drew is told that he must go to Kentucky—specifically, Elizabethtown, a little burg near Louisville—to see to the body and fend off the efforts of the Baylor clan to bury it there. Like a good son, he obeys. Along the way, he meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a perky wisp of a flight attendant who may be either a kindred spirit or slightly mental, or both. The two of them dance around a potential romance for the rest of the film, mainly (we’re meant to infer) because of Drew’s internal Issues (with a capital “I”).

If this sounds suspiciously like last year’s “Garden State,” it is and it isn’t. Like that film, it’s about a young man who’s gradually roused from an emotional stupor, thanks in large part to the attentions of a cute girl. But “Garden State” was also about going home and confronting buried family issues, which “Elizabethtown” only gestures vaguely towards without really addressing. In fact, one of the film’s major flaws is how badly it utilizes Greer and Susan Sarandon as Drew’s sister and mother, respectively. Another is the even thinner characterization of Drew’s deceased father (all we’re told is he was a wonderful man, and seems to have been a kind father) and the Kentucky Baylors, who appear as little more than a snapshot montage of elderly “eccentrics” and little kids in a constant state of commotion.

No, most of “Elizabethtown”’s focus is on the slow-building relationship between Drew and Claire, which might have worked better if Claire weren’t so daffy and Drew weren’t such a blank. Before this movie, I was beginning to think that Bloom was actually growing as an actor: underwhelmed as I generally was by “Kingdom of Heaven,” I thought I detected some progress there from the one-note Legolas of “Lord of the Rings.” Now I see that he’s merely shifted from two expressions to three. I suppose that’s progress of a sort; still, I don’t think it’s a good sign that any new depths developed in Drew’s character over the course of the film fail to leave any mark on his face.

That said, the movie’s not without certain Crowe-ian charms—great music (especially in the last fifteen minutes or so), flashes of quirky humor (look for the appearance of “Freebird” at an otherwise howlingly dull and cheesy funeral), and a handful of genuinely witty and thought-provoking observations on the nature of success and romance. Crowe’s too intelligent a director and writer to give us a film that isn’t worth watching at least in parts. But in the end, it’s not enough—not nearly enough—for someone from whom we’ve come to expect so much more.

RATING: ** 1/3



directed by David Cronenberg
starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt

In many ways, David Cronenberg is the diametric opposite of Cameron Crowe. He’s not a nihilist, or even a pessimist, exactly; he just has a far colder eye for human nature—in particular, the twisted convolutions that human desire can take. There’s a place in our culture for both Crowe and Cronenberg; but in this round, at least, Cronenberg wins, hands down.

“A History of Violence” has something of the quality of a fable or allegory, although (or perhaps because) it’s based on a graphic novel. Set mainly in an idyllic Everytown, America, it centers on the character of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), quiet family man and proprietor of the local diner. Soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, blessed with an attractive wife (Maria Bello) and two apple-cheeked children, Tom seems like an upstanding citizen and the embodiment of small-town virtues.

But there’s more to Tom than meets the eye, as he inadvertently reveals when trouble hits Paradise—in the form of two sadistic criminals who invade the diner and threaten to kill one of his employees. In a split second, Tom gains the upper hand and saves the day by shooting both men dead with their own guns. After the initial round of jaw-dropping, he’s promptly canonized as the town hero; unfortunately, his woes have only begun. Before long, a new, far more menacing set of criminal types, led by a mobster named Fogarty (Ed Harris, oozing menace), slink into Tom’s diner and begin stalking him and his family. Fogarty, having seen our hero’s face in the news, is convinced that “Tom” is another man altogether—more to the point, that he and Fogarty go way, way back and have a longstanding score to settle.

I won’t reveal whether Fogarty’s right, or, as Tom repeatedly protests, he’s got the wrong man. Suffice to say that for at least the first half of the movie, the truth about Tom is beside the point. Far more significant is the spiraling effect of the violence and its aftermath on Tom and his family. As Fogarty’s comments fan suspicions regarding Tom’s shady past, Tom's wife and adolescent son react in ways that would keep a psychoanalyst busy for days. What would *you* do if you discovered that your loving husband or father was a killer? What Cronenberg recognizes and depicts with remarkable perspicacity is that it just might *turn you on*. Or, at the least, it might turn something on in you that you never suspected was there.

In the last third or so, “A History of Violence” loses some of its bite even as it reveals more clearly its graphic-novel origins. (It does come back, with a silent roar, at the very end.) But even at its most stylized, the movie remains a sharp testament to our dual susceptibility to violence. Each time an act of unspeakable brutality cracks across the screen, it compels an impulse to simultaneously cheer and wince. And that impulse, far more effectively than the bloodiest boxing match or the harshest documentary, captures the terrible power of violence to both seduce and destroy.



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