Almost Infamous 

Cameron Crowe stumbles with "Elizabethtown."

The movie is narrated by Orlando Bloom, playing the inventor of a souped-up sneaker whose release, for reasons never explained, has been canceled at a cost to his employers of close to a billion dollars. As he's contemplating suicide, he learns his father has died while visiting his hometown in Kentucky. Bloom must postpone his appointment with self-slaughter in order to retrieve the body from the redneck side of the family and bring it back home to Oregon. On the plane he meets a strangely perky stewardess (Kirsten Dunst), and in league with Bloom's country cousins, she spends the balance of the film's two hours schooling Bloom in the bittersweet beauties of life.

The film begins well, buoyed by Alec Baldwin's star turn as the visionary CEO of the shoe company that Bloom's errors (whatever they are) have brought to its knees. As he takes Bloom on a farewell tour of the headquarters, he motions sadly to the company's "global environmental watchdog group," which will have to be closed down. In a wonderful throwaway line, he says with a sigh, "We could have saved the planet." Now Bloom will have the fate of the panda on his conscience, too.

Things go terribly awry when Dunst arrives on the scene. It's clear that we're supposed to take her as an emissary of life, custom-made to pull Bloom out of his funk, but she comes across as an unbalanced stalker, with a creepy habit of pointing an imaginary camera in Bloom's direction, the better to squirrel away his image in her addled mind. She gives Bloom her number, and when he calls her in a fit of loneliness, any hope we may have for the film shrivels to nothing: They engage in an all-night gabfest that amounts to an encyclopedia of banalities. "Men see things in a box, and women see them in a round room," Dunst avers. Bloom, a stranger to the world of emotion, is thunderstruck by her intuitive wisdom. They deserve each other.

Then there's Bloom's extended family, a lovable collection of hicks with big hair and flesh made heavy with beaten biscuits and fried food. With his angular features and preternaturally clear skin, Bloom moves among them like an alien from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" on the set of "Hee Haw." Lessons learned by city slickers at the hands of simple folk are a staple of storytelling, but Crowe treats this theme in a purely perfunctory way. He clearly likes these curious people, with their ties to the enduring and the elemental, but he's not interested in them. Although "Elizabethtown" runs a full two hours, Crowe does not find time to turn even one of the Kentuckians into a real character.

Crowe is on his home turf when he's dealing with Bloom's West Coast mother (Susan Sarandon), but even here he comes to grief. Wild with sorrow, Sarandon goes manic, throwing herself into crash courses in cooking, auto repair and, most disastrously, stand-up comedy. It's not entirely clear whether all this is supposed to make us chuckle or weep. When she shows up in Kentucky for the memorial service, she delivers a dreadful, desperate and drearily bawdy comic monologue, which, after some hesitation, the townsfolk greet with hoots of pleasure. None of this makes a bit of emotional sense.

The coup de grce comes in the form of a final road trip that Bloom undertakes with his father's ashes. It's supposed to be an odyssey into the heart of America, but it's an exercise in platitudes. The film reaches the heights of hypocrisy when Bloom alights at the Lorraine Motel for some canned words about Martin Luther King — this after an extended stay in a Southern state where hardly a black person has appeared. It's a fitting close to a muddled film dripping with inauthenticity. (PG-13) 121 min. * S


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