I had been dreading seeing Elizabethtown, the way you might dread seeing an old friend who's on his way to prison -- whether he's guilty of the crime or innocent, it's just not gonna be as much fun as it was, like, before he was tried and sentenced. I love Cameron Crowe's work (I'd say that Say Anything is the Great American Teen Romantic Comedy, and there are more memorable, gone-into-the-culture lines of dialogue in Jerry Maguire than most other auteurs have come up with in their entire careers), so I didn't like hearing how awful his new movie is.
Well, actually, Crowe has made a great film here. Problem is, it's less than fifteen minutes long and it's tucked into the back of a not very good one. I'm speaking of course (for those of you who've seen it, and for thems that haven't, this is really no big spoiler) of the road trip through the American south that occurs in the movie's third act, which I think is a sequence of poignant heart and beauty that can stand up with the best of Crowe's work.
As to the rest of it... Well, there are plenty of good moments -- a satisfying true-to-life behind-the-wheel freakout over missing a road sign, an amusing modern romance cellphone marathon that ends with a sweet tart throwaway line. But the basic stuff of the story feels secondhand in the wake of Garden State. And the fundamental way in which Crowe has botched its central love story put me in mind of one basic principle of romantic comedy screenwriting. While it may be comforting to see that even the best writers can sometimes lose sight of the obvious, here's an observation you might bear in mind if you're a rom-com writer who's in the process of Trying This At Home. Love can't come from nowhere -- you can't do it with one character: it actually takes two.
Romantic comedy is one of only two movie genres that require two fully developed protagonists to work, the other being the buddy movie, which some academics posit is actually a homoerotic rom-com at heart, but anyway... Crowe has written himself into a corner with his movie's hero, by making him so emotionally cut-off that he's like an unusually tall, dark and handsome zombie. Yes, he looks like Orlando Bloom (because he is Orlando Bloom) but there really is no reason in the world -- at least none demonstrated on screen -- for Claire, the flight attendant played by Kirsten Dunst, to fall head-over-heels for protagonist Drew.
As the movie's set-up has it, Drew's the only passenger on Claire's red-eye flight, and she -- an impossibly chipper, high-spirited young woman (whom Crowe probably envisioned as the modern-day equivalent of screwball heroines played by Jean Arthur or Carole Lombard) -- strikes up a conversation. Traumatized by a career fiasco and his father's death, Drew's a tired, morose and taciturn (also suicidal, not that she knows this) guy. Drew shows next-to-no interest in talking with Claire and gives her no encouragement whatsoever. Yet despite this, and despite the absolute void extant where a male protagonist's personality is supposed to reside, Claire throws herself at him.
Can we talk about cute meets? The "meet cute" in a good romantic comedy comes out of a kind of combustion. It's the result of what I call a chemical equation -- a sense that he's like this, and she's like that, and if you put them together, you get something fresh and intriguing, and fun. Two strong personalities spark and Something takes off.
Well, it doesn't really work if only one of the two principals is genuinely present. So the fact that Claire hones in on Drew, ignoring his disinterest (and her own supposed off-screen boyfriend), providing him with an unasked-for phone number and an obsessively friendly goodbye, makes her seem less like a romantic lead and more like a stalker.
In its erotically charged give-and-take, an effective cute meet gives the audience an idea of why two people could conceivably become a couple, and without that info, a subliminal something's-wrong-with-this-picture torpedos the basic credibility of the romantic plot. This all-important beat is what makes us suspend disbelief in a romantic comedy. Given a believable set-up, we'll buy into the idea that say, Tobey Maguire can use his Spidey powers to fly around Manhattan, but Elizabethtown's bungled beat fails to convince us that Bloom's charisma would make this romance fly, nor that Kirsten's powers would impel Bloom to pick up a phone and call her.
One thing Elizabethtown's cute meet does get right is its presaging of what will be the basic dynamic of this couple for the whole of the movie: Claire keeps coming at him, no matter what, virtually propelling the already emotion-blocked, hapless Drew into the outermost regions of passivity. Not that he wants to have his feelings, let alone activate them, but with Claire always there, Drew's truly a nothing with nada to do.
The real shame of it all is Claire's contemporary courtship cluelessness. Clearly she should be reading Maureen Dowd, whose incisive analysis of the modern woman's plight in the Sunday NY Times magazine points out the other side of the obvious that Englishtown has stubbed its toe on: its woman-chases-man story goes against our zeitgeist grain just now. Out here in the off-screen, post failure-of-feminism world, if you do want to land even a good-looking cipher, hon, you're supposed to be playing hard to get.