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Bloom is stranded in 'Elizabethtown'

Watch out for smart, perceptive filmmakers who make movies about their fathers. ''Big Fish" was Tim Burton on Paxil, vacant and even-tempered. Now, sadly, Cameron Crowe has decided to pay his filial respects. The movie is ''Elizabethtown," and it's his most nakedly square picture yet.

He casts the English actor Orlando Bloom as Drew Baylor, a designer of high-end, mass-market sneakers. After his latest shoe -- the Spasmotica -- bombs, costing his Nike-like company an improbable $972 million, he heads home and tries to impale himself on a kitchen knife. But just in time, his cellphone vibrates with news of another death, his father's. So the son postpones suicide and flies to the film's eponymous Kentucky town (dad had been visiting his birthplace) to bring the body back to his mother (Susan Sarandon) and younger sister (Judy Greer) in Oregon. The trip plunks Drew smack in the middle of an endless, boisterous family he hardly knows.

For a stretch, the movie shows promise. The bloviating narration recedes. The personalities push themselves at Drew, who blankly takes in all the accents and affection and pictures, and the camera noses around the corners of a crowded house. In short, ''Elizabethtown" feels authentically alive.

Drew, on the other hand, remains frustratingly inert. Bloom may be a formidable actor, but in movie after movie, he looks misplaced. Crowe leaves Drew in a funk for so long that by the time the fog lifts we've stopped believing. The character lacks a philosophy. He's also missing a soul.

But Crowe, ever the idealist, has given Drew a savior: the flight attendant he meets on the plane to Louisville (magically, he's the only passenger). She's a relentlessly down-home woman named Claire, played by Kirsten Dunst, who again requires us to bring our sunglasses. Things are grim for a picture when not even she can pick it up, but that's what a saggy state things are in here for Crowe.

Claire helps Drew realize he didn't really know his dad. And in a long sequence, Drew and Claire share an epic conversation on their cellphones, but we never feel the click between these two. Yet for the duration of Drew's brief stay, they speak to each other in whimsical pontifications while the soundtrack shuffles through Crowe's iTunes playlist. Apparently, what they have to say to each other is better expressed by Tom Petty and Elton John.

Those aren't cool artists. Not anymore. Neither is the Lindsey Buckingham acoustic number that plays in one scene, good as it is. But no one will ever mistake a Cameron Crowe movie for a work of cool. This, of course, is Crowe's charm. His movies don't sit at the same table as the Tarantinos, the Wong Kar Wais, or the Gus Van Sants. Crowe's movies possess an unfashionable earnestness. They believe in the essential goodness of you and me. They believe that love can conquer everything.

Crowe's best movies, ''Say Anything . . ." and ''Almost Famous," risked cool for idealism and sentimentality. He can make you embrace corniness, because, better than a lot of American directors, he knows that, at our most besotted, corniness is an apotheosis of love. To wit, Renee Zellweger's ''You had me at hello" in ''Jerry Maguire." Only when mockingly plucked from the film does that line sound like a Hallmark moment. In the context of the movie itself, it was poetry, and it got to your heart. Crowe's other iconic movie moment was also romantic poetry: John Cusack hoisting a boombox up to Ione Skye's window in ''Say Anything . . . ." Romeo spoke Shakespeare to Juliet, but failing that he would have used Peter Gabriel.

The crying shame of ''Elizabethtown" is that nary an ounce of it approaches that sort of emotional transcendence. There is one stirring sequence, a road trip across the country, that caps the film, but, boy, does it come too late. What does Crowe intend for ''Elizabethtown"? In part, this is supposed to be his ''see the world" movie, but it feels hermetic. His ideas about globalism and grief are unformed to the point that his optimism seems uncharacteristically naïve. The movie feels long and strangely derivative of his other, better work. For the first time, he can't focus his romantic abstractions into fresh moments of insight or truth. What, for example, are we to make of the tragically embarrassing memorial service built around Sarandon and her character's personal growth?

Audiences of a certain hipster disposition, in fact, will see ''Elizabethtown" and pine for Zach Braff's ''Garden State," the movie to which ''Elizabethtown" bears an unfortunate and inferior resemblance. Both movies suffer from inert heroes who are awakened by bizarre lovelies. Obviously, this is a Cameron Crowe film, but his writerly instincts feel as if they're jammed up and suffocated. Indeed, too much of the film is set in Drew's hotel. So it's stale with still air, and it takes far too long for Crowe to crack a window.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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