There is always something a little embarrassing about a Cameron Crowe film, stemming mainly from the impression that he is trying too hard to ingratiate himself. Yet there is usually, especially lately, something actually ingratiating as well, stemming paradoxically from how hard he tries. Vanilla Sky, no; but Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and most of all Almost Famous, yes. Elizabethtown, his latest, has plenty of both types of thing. It traces the personal odyssey of a corporate up-and-comer (Orlando Bloom, pretty well concealing his accent) whose design of a new athletic shoe called Sp...smotica ("It was meant to approximate walking on a cloud") has been, for some unspecified reason, although the name alone seems reason enough, a total bust that will cost the company close to a billion dollars. His attempted suicide, before his folly hits the newsstands, gets interrupted by word of the untimely death of his father -- or timely death, from the suicide-prevention standpoint -- and by his obligation to retrieve the body from the Kentucky hometown where his father happened to have been visiting at the time. An almost maniacally helpful flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) is encountered on the way, and a legion of distant family and unknown friends awaits on arrival: "This loss will be met by a hurricane of love."
The film indeed has a large population of sharply defined and differentiated characters, some of them embarrassing, some of them ingratiating, some of them both, and all of them generously given their fair chance or chances. It also has a wide range of types of material or topics of observation: the cutthroat corporate world and the welcoming small town, the big wedding party (strictly on the periphery) and the big funeral service, the cellphone culture and the cross-country road trip. Just as Nora Ephron in You've Got Mail managed to warm up the personal computer, so does Crowe warm up the mobile phone, principally with an all-night long-distance gabfest between two virtual strangers who, by sunrise, and still gabbing, are meeting one another at the halfway point in their separate cars. No one can have failed to notice that Crowe is a romantic at heart, or anyway a romantic in his scheming, calculating, crowd-pleasing head. Unquestionably the scheming, calculating head predominates. His work is strewn with contrived and self-conscious Movie Moments, no less than four of them at the memorial service alone, when the widow's profane tribute to her husband extracts from a dour old unsmiling war vet, not quite a smile, but at least an amused little nod (Movie Moment No. 1), before she breaks into a beginner's tap dance to "Moon River" (Movie Moment No. 2), and then gives way to a reassembled garage band's rendition of "Freebird" (Movie Moment No. 3), until a paper bird prop catches fire as it takes wing (Movie Moment No. 4) and scatters the crowd in a panic. The romanticism, at its most scheming and calculating, reasserts itself in the climactic solo car trip, mapped out for the hero by the heroine -- Dinosaur World, Martin Luther King's murder site, the best pit stop for chili, and so on -- complete with preprogrammed musical selections on custom-burned CDs.
And here would be the appropriate spot to pull over to the side of the road and say that, for me, the unavoidable snag in any Crowe film -- whatever the balance of embarrassment and ingratiation -- is the limitless playlist of pop songs on the soundtrack -- however eclectic, however catholic, however punditic, the selection. (You will easily recall, because Crowe will never let you forget, his Rolling Stone credentials.) I sometimes wonder whether there might ever come an end to that sort of thing: whether in twenty, forty, sixty years or so, the moviegoers of the future will look back at this practice with the same disaffection as moviegoers of today look back at those busily, bustlingly overscored films of the Forties. (Can't we just have a little quiet around here?) And I wonder, too, to what source the future film historians will trace the contagion: American Graffiti, The Graduate, what? It wasn't always, in case you need reminding, the norm. It wasn't always the necessity. There are of course countless current offenders -- it's quite unthinkable these days to do a romantic comedy, in particular, without some accompanying pop songs -- but none worse than Crowe.
North Country, based on a landmark court case, is a sexual-harassment horror story, single-minded if not simple-minded, set in the Mesabi Iron Range of Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Lakes, Not Quite That Many Hideous Open-Pit Craters, Two Dead Stags Strapped to a Flatbed, and Untold Chauvinist Pigs. (The soundtrack, a tad predictably, makes use of several songs by that native son of Hibbing, Mn., Bob Dylan.) The fictitious mining company of Pearson Taconite and Steel, Inc., had hired its first female miner, we are informed, in 1975, and fourteen years later, when the narrative picks up, against an eventual backdrop of Anita Hill testifying on television at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, the women are still outnumbered thirty to one. Charlize Theron, over the objections of her miner father ("You wanna be a lesbian now?") and in the face of open hostility from the male majority, joins the band of sisters, a single mother of two (by different fathers), a fugitive battered wife, and a closet Amazon who will not heed the advice to "work hard, keep your mouth shut, and take it like a man." How, exactly, does a man take to having his breast fondled or his crotch grabbed?
The American debut of New Zealand director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, an aperitif of prepubertal feminism) is in essence a Lifetime Network movie with more grit. You don't hear the four-letter "c" word on Lifetime, and you don't see shots of smeared feces and sprayed semen. Yet it seems entirely fitting that I would run into an ad for the movie on the network's website this week, when I was doing my routine check of its TV schedule. In addition to more grit, it boasts a strong cast, aside from the sometimes over-the-top Theron (whose ferocity can come as no surprise after Monster), including two of America's supreme actresses, Frances McDormand, doing a toned-down version of her Fargo accent, and Sissy Spacek, plus Michelle Monaghan, Richard Jenkins, Jeremy Renner, Sean Bean, and even Woody Harrelson, redeeming himself in more than one way for his oppressive husband in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. (But if the story demanded -- and I am unconvinced that it did -- flashbacks to high school with a different actress in the central role, couldn't she at least have been equipped with a false mole on her throat to match Theron's?) It boasts, as well, a couple of eruptions of real showmanship, as effective as they are manipulative. First, the father's change of allegiance at a combative union meeting: Jenkins's shining moment. And second, the spontaneous rallying, one person at a time, to the side of the besieged heroine in the courtroom: what I tend to think of (Billy Crystal would know what I mean) as an I'm-Spartacus moment.