Sons and Muggers

In Elizabethtown, Cameron Crowe mourns a lost father; in Domino, Tony Scott is like a predatory uncle.

Cameron Crowe gets corny?

There are superficial similarities in their use of music, but it would be hard to find a pair of directors with temperaments as dissimilar as Cameron Crowe, of Elizabethtown (Paramount), and Tony Scott, of Domino (New Line). Scott is vulgar, unscrupulous, controlling, with one hairy hand on the audience’s throat. Crowe is—well, I keep returning to that heartfelt, archetypal scene in his directorial debut, Say Anything, in which Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) holds his boombox aloft, blasting Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” for Diane (Ione Skye), the object of his affection. Like his alter ego, Crowe doesn’t seem completely confident that he can convey the depth of his emotion with mere words (or images). But as his autobiographical Almost Famous made clear, he has a deep connection to rock music, and he passionately hopes that it can help to usher the audience into his inner world.

It can and it can’t, in the case of Elizabethtown, but enough comes through to dispel the notion, widely reported after Crowe screened a longer cut at the Toronto Film Festival, that it’s a catastrophe. It certainly grows more floridly moist, until it leaves a part of the audience behind. Perhaps you need to feel indulgent toward Crowe—as you need to feel indulgent toward Lloyd—to let the climactic sequence, an inspirational American travelogue with music and narration, carry you along. It’s lucky that I am and I did. Mostly.

Elizabethtown is a story about coming to terms with public failure in an unforgiving culture, a failure compounded by the death of one father and the disappointment and rejection of another—the capitalist patriarch. Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) has worked for years to create a revolutionary new running shoe. (This is shown via well-orchestrated flashbacks.) The hoopla surrounding its manufacture propels him to the top of his profession; its disastrous reception and recall (for reasons that Crowe doesn’t specify) imperils the survival of the company and sends him spinning into the abyss. You’re hooked by the opening sequence, long tracking shots both funny and awful, in which Drew walks through corporate headquarters to the gallows (a meeting with the driven boss, a stranger to failure, played by Alec Baldwin) and his colleagues either look away embarrassed or fix him with eerily sympathetic gazes.

The news that his much-loved dad has died suddenly while on a visit to his childhood home, Elizabethtown, Kentucky, is the crowning blow—but at least it forestalls his suicide. (We learn what kind of artistic temperament Drew has when he constructs an elaborate machine to stab himself.) On the empty flight, the morose young man is befriended/bothered by a bubbly flight attendant, Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who claire-ly has eyes for him. Wildly alienated in Elizabethtown from the aunts, uncles, cousins and sympathetic friends of his dad, none of whom has yet heard the news of his spectacular crash-and-burn; hectored via phone by his neurotic sister (Judy Greer) and manic mother (Susan Sarandon); torn between burying his dad (his relatives’ wish) and cremating him (his mother’s command); and waiting for the national magazine story that names him as the architect of one of the most momentous business disasters in American history, Drew picks up the phone and calls Claire.

It’s no surprise that this action ends up saving his life: There’s a romantic (vaguely screwball) formula at work. But the pair’s rapport is fresh, unpredictable, and, by my lights, pretty sexy. Bloom has been criticized for his low-key demeanor, but I loved his finely calibrated performance and soft face—open, but with the emotion just a little way down, so that you have to keep watching him. And Dunst, with her willowy body and fanged smile, is an endless delight. Her readings are light, almost fleeting: Even as she comes on to Drew, a part of her seems elusive.

The problem is that Elizabethtown needed a raffish, Preston Sturges-esque ensemble to offset the corn; and apart from Paul Schneider as Drew’s scruffy, at-loose-ends cousin, few in the large cast make much of an impression. (Maybe they were lost on the cutting-room floor—hey, does that cliché even apply now that everything is edited on digital video?)

For all sort of reasons, I was disappointed that there is barely anything—beyond a good, bounding entrance—of Bruce McGill as the family’s hearty swindler. And there is too much of Sarandon, whose big scene—a speech at her late husband’s memorial service, with jokes and a tap dance—is the movie’s most egregious misfire. Crowe goes out on a limb with the character: He’s trying to depict a shattered woman rediscovering her will to live. (We’ve probably all known widows who, while devastated, found resources and outlets that no one could have anticipated.) But we never register the character’s grief, and so she comes off as shallow, self-centered, even inhuman. Her act is supposed to move her husband’s relatives, and those teary/beaming reactions are Crowe’s clunkiest—the visual equivalent of tin-eared.

That final travelogue, complete with a stop at the motel at which Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, will strike many as tin-eared, too: It’s an attempt to discover what is hopeful and ennobling in the American landscape and character as a counterweight to the shortsighted capitalist ideals that have driven our hero to despair. As I said, you’ll just have to go with it. One impediment is the soundtrack—a different rock song for each setting, one after another, practically a double album. You’d be forgiven for thinking, “Turn off the boombox, Lloyd: You’ve got us already. Lloyd, turn it off. Lloyd, for God’s sake, this is embarrassing. Lloyd!!!”

Domino will beat you over the head with its incoherence

But better a 90-minute Cameron Crowe travelogue (in IMAX) than a minute of Domino. Watching Tony Scott’s work here, I felt like the Irish drunk in Hitchcock’s The Birds looking up from his stool to declare, “It’s the end of the world!”Domino seemed to me the end of the world for movies—a glimpse of a future so excruciating that I’d prefer to take my chances with Hitchcock’s eye-gouging avians. It’s based, very loosely, on the true story of the late Domino Harvey (daughter of the actor Laurence), a ferociously unhappy sort who captured the imagination of the media by becoming a bounty hunter. (Completed before Harvey’s death, the film omits this bit of information—not surprising since the movie is structured to leave her on the road to a healthy, happy life.) My powers of description are hardly up to conveying what Scott has done with every scene, every millisecond.

Why film an action—say, the lighting of a cigarette—in one shot when you can do it in six? So you get match swipe, match flare, another angle (with a double exposure) on the flare, tip of cigarette burning, cigarette going between lips, character inhaling in close-up … And the film stock changes in each shot, one green, one black-and-white, one overexposed … And the sound of that flare is like a bomb going off … and the cigarette isn’t even a big deal. OK, this isn’t precisely the order of shots (I can’t take notes that fast), but it’s close. I’ve seen trailers cut slower than this movie.

Does Scott think his technique is “gritty”? He brings the camera in so close and lights his actors so severely that you can measure their pores, and their moles are practically 3-D. More important, the shots are clichés. There isn’t a fresh angle—something that brings out an aspect of a character that isn’t in the dialogue. The only desire is to pummel you and give you the jitters.

I remember seeing Abel Gance’s silent Napoleon back when it was revived (with a full orchestra) in the early ‘80s, and watching the early snowball sequence, a furious montage that was like a different, more heightened, more unfettered cinematic language, complete with double exposures, and thinking that maybe this would inspire a new generation of filmmakers to go back to the avant-garde and find new ways of transcending naturalism. And then along came MTV and all the twenty-somethings who grew up with montage—and as bad as most music videos are, even the worst can suggest that in this medium, anything is possible. Of all the young mainstream directors, Darren Aronofsky in Pi comes closest to inventing a new cinematic language, one completely in synch with the story being told.

Once, Tony Scott’s audio-visual hullabaloo enhanced instead of detracted from the content of a movie: Enemy of the State, in which Will Smith was tracked by the government with multiple satellites and surveillance cameras. The technique made the paranoia more visceral. But Domino is perpetual motion in a vacuum. It’s not the fault of This Year’s White Girl, young Keira Knightley, who sticks out her long jaw and acts wounded and defiant: She’s not ridiculous. There are enough weirdly cool actors around (Mickey Rourke and Christopher Walken in the same movie? Wow!) to make you think that if Scott held on them for a second longer, something would come through. Well, Rourke, as Knightley’s bounty-hunter mentor, does register, and he looks healthier than of late (not too hard—if he looked less healthy, he’d be dead). But no matter how hard I tried, I was constitutionally incapable of staying with Domino for more than a few minutes before wincing and shutting my eyes to ward off the horror.

At key junctures, Scott is so desperate for more graphic busy-ness that he runs big words across the screen: Sometimes they tell you the setting, sometimes they reinforce a plot point. And yet the audience is increasingly lost. So Domino manages the feat of literally spelling things out and being utterly incoherent. It’s the end of the world.