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10/24/2005 - CONFLICT IN ELIZABETHTOWN
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CONFLICT IN ELIZABETHTOWN by Tom McCurrie


Critics have given a number of reasons why ELIZABETHTOWN has failed to connect with audiences. One is that Orlando Bloom's performance is as lively as a gasoline pump. Another is that Kirsten Dunst's character is so perky she is practically borderline psychotic. Yet another is that the storyline is recycled from JERRY MAGUIRE, what with the overachiever learning to stop and smell the roses to a bunch of vintage tunes.

But, in this humble critic's opinion, the real reason ELIZABETHTOWN fails to connect is because it lacks the element all stories need to interest audiences -- conflict. Conflict is the struggle of a protagonist to achieve his goal. Whether or not the protagonist achieves that goal produces the tension that keeps an audience hooked.

Let's take a quick look at writer-director Cameron Crowe's plot. Orlando Bloom's character is fired when his latest sneaker design flops, resulting in his status-seeking girlfriend dumping him, too. Totally depressed, Bloom plans to kill himself until a fateful call informs him his father has just passed away in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Now Bloom has to bring his father's body back for cremation, while his father's relatives in Elizabethtown want to bury him right there as is. Thrown into the mix is a flight attendant, played by Dunst, who bonds with Bloom on the flight to Kentucky, and soon follows him to Elizabethtown for an on-again, off-again romance.

That is pretty much it in a celluloid nutshell. Now let's look at the conflict. Bloom tries to off himself in the beginning, which provides a nice inner conflict with life-and-death stakes, the highest stakes there are. But once he heads to Kentucky, Bloom never tries to commit suicide again, nor does he even talk about it, except for one inference in a speech to Dunst late in the film. This particular conflict has disappeared, along with the tension, and interest, it could have created.

So let's look at the external conflict, the one between Bloom and his Kentucky relatives over whether the father should be cremated or not. Family feuds are often like driving by a grisly car accident -- truly nasty but hard to ignore. Unfortunately, before this feud can boil over into something interesting to watch, Bloom reads the Riot Act to his relatives in one short scene, telling them his father is going to be cremated, end of story. The relatives shrug their shoulders in acceptance, everybody is one big happy family again, and that is the end of this particular conflict as well.

Since at its heart ELIZABETHTOWN is a romance, the film's third conflict involves Bloom and Dunst's relationship. Now whether it's a romantic drama like ROMEO AND JULIET or a romantic comedy like WEDDING CRASHERS, the tension, and interest, in a romance comes from whether the lovers will be able to overcome the obstacles in the way of them living happily ever after. The problem with ELIZABETHTOWN is that Bloom and Dunst have no obstacles between them whatsoever. There is certainly no love triangle issue: Bloom's girlfriend dumps him early on, while we guess pretty quickly that Dunst's "boyfriend" is nothing more than a fib. With little if anything keeping them apart, it becomes wearying waiting for them to get together as they verbally dance around each other. The only reason they take so long seems to be because the movie needs to be two hours in length, while if they acted as one would in real life, the movie would be about 40 minutes. Now Bloom & Dunst do break up at the end of the Second Act, but it's very unclear why they do so, so this attempt at last-minute conflict is too forced to be effective, and makes their eventual reunion less an uplifting moment than a formulaic one.

No matter how well-written the dialogue, or well-acted the performance, a movie without conflict is a movie very few people will want to see.


Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is currently working on his first novel.

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