Rearview Mirror: “Elizabethtown”

Looking back on fifteen years of Cameron Crowe’s half-baked rom-com and, of course, the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope.
Film + TV
Rearview Mirror: “Elizabethtown”

Looking back on fifteen years of Cameron Crowe’s half-baked rom-com and, of course, the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope.

Words: Lizzie Logan

photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

October 14, 2020

Welcome to Rearview Mirror, a monthly movie column in which I re-view and then re-review a movie I have already seen under the new (and improved?) critical lens of 2020. I’m so happy you’re here.

When we talk about the legacies of movies, which is what this column is sort of about, we look first at their content: How they fit into a director’s oeuvre, if they launched a starlet’s career, whether the themes still feel relevant today. Take a step away from the movie itself and you get into a discussion of its reception: Was it a flop or a blockbuster, critically panned and now a cult classic? Was there an upset at the Oscars? But the legacy of Cameron Crowe’s 2005 film Elizabethtown is even farther removed from what Elizabethtown is actually about, and it’s the only instance I can think of when a review of a movie has been so much more culturally significant than the movie itself. Elizabethtown begat Nathan Rabin writing about Elizabethtown, which gave us the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” And listicles were never the same again.

It wasn’t even a contemporaneous review. Rabin wrote his article two years after Elizabethtown came out, and it would be another year before the phrase truly permeated the online lexicon. Just in time to ride the wave of backlash against 500 Days of Summer (2009), with its cutesy aesthetic, its wannabe Wes Anderson narration, Zooey “Listens to The Smiths” Deschanel and her bangs and her ukulele. The “MPDG” designation retroactively described Natalie “This Song Will Change Your Life” Portman in Garden State—which, like Elizabethtown, is about a mopey floppy-haired man who returns home after the death of a parent. In 2012, Ruby Sparks, written by and starring Zoe Kazan, more or less killed the trend by revealing the “MPDG” as the shallow fantasy of an uninspired male writer it was. In 2014, Rabin apologized for coining the phrase, citing its overuse. But by then, the conversation had moved on.

In her 2012 novel Gone Girl, and then again in her screenplay for the 2014 adaptation, Gillian Flynn delivered unto us students of character a new archetype: The Cool Girl. Add to that the ubiquitous “basic bitch” and there’s barely any room for a manic pixie anything. She’s a thing of another generation, may she rest in quirky peace.

But it’s funny, looking back, to consider that Elizabethtown played such an outsized role in the evolution of the discussion of female movie characters. Because it’s by far the worst movie of all the ones I’ve mentioned above. 500 Days of Summer is twee, but the performances are winning and the story holds up. Ruby Sparks is an under-seen gem, and, of course, Gone Girl is great. Even Garden State, for all people make fun of it, is a sincere effort. Zach Braff had a vision, whether you enjoy that vision or not. Elizabethtown is half-baked, like it was made by people who were all on a caffeine detox and just wanted to get the day’s work done as quickly as possible.

Our hero, if you can call him that, is Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom, with a shaky American accent that doesn’t leave him much room to act), a hotshot shoe designer who narrates at seemingly random intervals and has just lost his company nearly a billion dollars after launching a spectacularly ugly sneaker to great fanfare. His boss and mentor (Alec Baldwin) blames the “turmoil” of the “American psyche,” but it’s clear the shoe is just incredibly, ridiculously ugly. The shoe is also called the “Spasmodica.” 

Drew is fired and makes plans to kill himself when his sister (Judy Greer) calls to tell him that their father has just died, in Kentucky, and Drew has to go deal with the body. Oh, also, back when he was a corporate cool guy at the shoe company, he had a sexy, intense girlfriend (Jessica Biel), but that relationship is over due to the public flameout, so it’s time for Drew to learn about the value of family and find happiness again with an upbeat blonde (Kirsten Dunst). If all that sounds familiar, it’s because Crowe has basically copied and pasted his formula for 1996’s Jerry Maguire.

Elizabethtown is half-baked, like it was made by people who were all on a caffeine detox and just wanted to get the day’s work done as quickly as possible.

I goddamn love Jerry Maguire. I think every part of it works. I think it’s got heart and guts and if you are willing to embrace it, it’s got something to teach you. But if Jerry Maguire is a three-course meal, Elizabethtown is a blurry picture of that meal posted to Instagram and hastily scrolled past without so much as a “like.” First of all, Orlando Bloom is not Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise will take that couch-jumping intensity and funnel it into a performance so riveting it grabs you by the collar and won’t let go until the credits roll. Orlando Bloom is…very pretty, indeed. This movie has Susan Sarandon learning to grieve her husband through tap dance (OK…) in place of Cuba Gooding, Jr., and as for that bubbly blonde love interest, Dunst’s Clare is more of a smile on a stick than a living, breathing, hurting person like Dorothy (Renée Zellweger) or for that matter, her grumpy sister (Bonnie Hunt).

The fact that Jerry Maguire is so good makes Elizabethtown all the more infuriating. There are some writers who, for whatever reason, have their limitations, and we just have to accept that going in. But Cameron Crowe can do this! He can write love stories and emotional arcs and women who are interesting! So why won’t he friggin’ do it here?

Clare is charming. We don’t know how, exactly—I found her annoying—but we know she must be charming because she wins over everyone she meets, including strangers on the road and an entire bachelorette party. She never seems to need to sleep. She’s always up and ready to talk on the phone, and she makes an elaborate road trip scrapbook on what looks like about twelve hours’ notice. She’s a flight attendant who says she has a boyfriend, but this is questionable, and she has theories about names and this idea that she and Drew are “substitute people,” which is never fully explained. She inserts herself into Drew’s life pretty aggressively, showing up at his hotel after she had said she was going on vacation in Hawaii (maybe this abandoned trip gave Crowe the idea for Aloha. Remember Aloha? At one point in Elizabethtown, Drew and Clare say to each other, “aloha.” Aloha!). Remember, this is a man who was on the verge of suicide when he lost a parent. If the genders were reversed, I’d say his was a clear violation of boundaries, that Drew was way too vulnerable to be preyed upon this way. As it is, it’s just weird.

If Jerry Maguire is a three-course meal, Elizabethtown is a blurry picture of that meal posted to Instagram and hastily scrolled past without so much as a “like.”

Drew and Clare flirt through meaningless aphorisms and rhetorical questions, and it’s unclear what, exactly, Drew learns from his family in Kentucky. It’s all a lot of sound and fury, punctuated by faux-profound images, like Sarandon tapping, and a papier mâché bird catching fire during the memorial service, and Bloom screaming/laughing/crying in the car as he drives his father’s ashes home. The body was cremated, according to Mr. Baylor’s wishes, but the Kentucky side of the family wanted a burial, so they filled a coffin with mementos. At the grave, the mechanism to lower the coffin keeps catching and creaking, and the family can’t help but laugh at the morbid absurdity of the moment, the human error during a supposedly solemn occasion. But without a body inside the coffin, does it really matter if they gently lower it into the dirt? This was the movie in a nutshell: filled with mementoes and gestures and pictures of a well-lived life, but the body is gone, there’s nothing inside.

Elizabethtown has a few scenes that work. Drew re-assembling a stationary bike into a machine upon which to stab himself to death is darkly funny. When he drives into his dad’s hometown, the residents line the streets, mutely pointing him toward the funeral home, a simple and touching visual, as is Drew imagining his father’s corpse smiling kindly. But just as often as it is sweet, Elizabethtown is baffling. On that road trip Clare designed for Drew, all of the pit stops are fun local attractions…except she also threw in the motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. This movie has literally zero nonwhite characters and absolutely nothing to do with the civil rights movement. Yet Drew visits a museum about Dr. King’s work in a scene set to that U2 song about the day he got shot, because subtlety is for suckers, I guess? According to Clare, King’s death was merely the beginning of his many successes, which is an absurd way to look at history, and a bizarre idea to throw into the last ten minutes of a movie about a white guy going through a rough time in his personal and professional life.

Sprinkled into Drew’s narration is the movie’s supposed theme, something about success and failure and how we should not define ourselves by them because life is always changing anyway, I think. Maybe this was Crowe attempting to reckon with the mixed response to Vanilla Sky (2001) after the massive successes of Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous (2000). He had made the ugly sneaker, but he would not let it break him. Following this metaphor, Elizabethtown is an even worse sneaker. But this isn’t one of those “director’s oeuvre” reviews. This is the review of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl movie. And so I find it only appropriate that instead of bringing this column to some kind of meaningful close, I shall simply and quirkily bid you all adieu with a “:P” FL