Returning to his romantic comedy roots after "Vanilla Sky," helmer Cameron Crowe throws a friendly party with "Elizabethtown," laying on colorful characters, witty banter and a constant stream of vintage tunes. However, bash lasts too long, and guests try too hard to have fun, and pic's busy, neo-screwball script suffers from arch editing and a surfeit of whimsical subplots. Modest B.O. looks likely.

A correction was made to this review on Sept. 6, 2005.

Returning to his romantic comedy roots after “Vanilla Sky,” helmer Cameron Crowe throws a friendly party with “Elizabethtown,” laying on colorful characters, witty banter and a constant stream of vintage tunes. However, bash lasts too long, and guests try too hard to have fun, and pic’s busy, neo-screwball script — about a shoe designer planning his father’s funeral in a Kentucky town while falling for a perky stewardess met en route — suffers from arch editing and a surfeit of whimsical subplots. Modest B.O. looks likely.

Although presumably in development for some time, basic set-up sounds like a sunnier, studio version of Zach Braff’s indie hit “Garden State,” which beat “Elizabethtown” to the punch by a year and a half. “State” was a similar tale of a depressed young man who travels back East for a parent’s funeral and ends up finding love with a gorgeous, hip chick. But where Braff’s pic was riddled with slacker angst and featured characters with jagged edges, nearly everyone in “Elizabethtown” is as gosh-darn nice as a warm sunny day.

The only real exceptions are a couple of meanies at the West Coast corporate headquarters of footwear company Mercury, where workaholic protagonist Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is introduced. Much like the title character in the opening of Crowe’s biggest hit, “Jerry Maguire,” Drew is in disgrace. Alec Baldwin brings comic relish to the scene where his CEO character Phil coldly berates Drew for fashioning a sneaker that “may cause an entire generation to return to bare feet.”

On top of that, Drew’s g.f. Ellen (Jessica Biel) dumps him. He prepares to commit suicide, but is diverted by a phone call from his ditsy sister, Heather (Judy Greer): Their father has suddenly died in his hometown, Elizabethtown, Ky., and Drew must go there to take care of the funeral.

Heather, meanwhile, will handle their manic mom, Hollie (Susan Sarandon), who deals with grief by learning to tap dance.

From here on out, it’s as if every character in the screenplay had the phrase “…but lovable” attached. For starters, Drew meets cute with kooky stewardess Claire (Kirsten Dunst), an archetypal Cameron Crowe femme love interest. Like Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane in “Almost Famous,” Claire is beautiful, slightly neurotic, and has impeccable taste in rock and pop (like Crowe).

In Elizabethtown, Drew meets up with his noisy extended family, including maternal Aunt Dora (cooking-show host Paula Deen), laidback Uncle Dale (country star Loudon Wainwright III), wily cousin Bill (Bruce McGill), and rowdy, wannabe rocker Jessie (Paul Schneider).

One of pic’s funniest lines has Jessie countering accusations that he’s not raising his son right by solemnly asserting he wants the kid “to know about both Abraham Lincoln and Ronnie Van Zant.” (Pic pays tribute to Southern icon Van Zant, the late Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer, with an impressive cover of “Free Bird” at its climax.)

Although rich in screwball silliness and sharp one-liners, film lacks the narrative drive one finds in the classic comedies of Preston Sturges, Frank Capra and Billy Wilder, whom Crowe always seems to try to emulate. Crowded with amusing supporting turns and eccentric minor characters, “Elizabethtown” becomes not so much character-driven as backseat-driven, taking frequent detours from the budding romance between Drew and Claire.

Love story is, in fact, pic’s weak spine. Most effective point in its dramatic arc comes early on, when Drew and Claire bond through an all-night phone call that ends on a tart, believable note. But although Bloom and Dunst look good together, the grit that makes the pearl of a great onscreen couple is missing here.

Partly it’s the script’s fault; partly it’s the stars’. Dunst looks luminous as ever and holds up her end well, although her Claire perpetually speaks too-slick movie dialogue. She’s just a breath away from seeming like a controlling nut, or worse.

Bloom’s Drew is mostly passive, and the British thesp brings little to the table apart from good looks and a reasonable American accent. It’s hard to know what Claire sees in him.

Film’s running time is drawn out by everyone getting a moment or two. For instance, Sarandon’s Hollie has a big, five-minute speech that becomes a (not very funny) standup comedy routine at the final memorial service, climaxed by a tap dance.

In the end, the whole shebang feels as if it started out not with the characters or the funeral-homecoming plot device, but with a powerhouse mix tape of outstanding ditties around which Crowe then structured his story.

Choices include less-heard tunes by w.k. artists (Elton John’s “My Father’s Gun,” Tom Petty’s “It’ll All Work Out”), balanced against hits by upcoming performers like Ryan Adams’ (“Come Pick Me Up”) and the kind of songs only proper pop aficionados and ex-Rolling Stone scribes like Crowe would have heard, such as “Hard Times” by Eastmountainsouth.

Editing by David Moritz feels nervous and drains comic potential in some scenes by favoring shot-reverse-shot where a simple well-played master would have sufficed. At 138 minutes, running time is far too baggy, despite signs of last-minute trimming in several strands that don’t quite pay off.

Elizabethtown

Production

A Paramount Pictures release and presentation of a Cruise/Wagner-Vinyl Films production. Produced by Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Cameron Crowe. Executive producer, Donald J. Lee Jr. Directed, written by Cameron Crowe.

Crew

Camera (color), John Toll; editor, David Moritz; music, Nancy Wilson; production designer, Clay A. Griffith; art director, Beat Frutiger; costume designer, Nancy Steiner; sound (Dolby), Jeff Wexler; associate producer, Andy Fischer; assistant director, Scott Andrew Robertson; casting, Gail Levin. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (non-competing), Sept. 3, 2005. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Galas.) Running time: 138 MIN.

With

Drew Baylor - Orlando Bloom Claire Colburn - Kirsten Dunst Hollie Baylor - Susan Sarandon Heather Baylor - Judy Greer Ellen Kishmore - Jessica Biel Phil - Alec Baldwin Jessie Baylor - Paul Schneider Aunt Dora - Paula Deen Uncle Dale - Loudon Wainwright III Bill Banyon - Bruce McGill

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