A tale of two road trips

Recently I watched two different road trip movies. Both were intended to combine action, humor, and romance. Both were done with sizable budgets and excellent actors. Both were written by respected, successful, scriptwriters. Both are meant to be fun, with lots of action, humor, and romance. Both are meant to celebrate music, and use long stretches of pop songs as almost another character in the story. Both enjoyed some critical acclaim, though I’ll never understand why movie B was as well received as it was.

Movie A is Bandits, directed by Barry Levinson.

Movie B is Elizabethtown, directed by Cameron Crowe.

Why is Bandits a blast, and Elizabethtown an eye-roller? Because the one director had an ear for authenticity, and the other didn’t.

Barry Levison and Cameron Crowe both have the credentials. They both can write, and they both can direct. Based on Levinson’s body of work, however, I’d have to say that Barry has a much better ear for authentic dialog. Case in point, the Stagecoach dialog scene in Avalon. (The movie is worth the rental just for that minute of dialog). He’s also a lot more disciplined as a director, with an eye for simplicity and elegance in the shooting. Case in point, the hospital scene when Aidan Quinn is walking with his son, and saying how strange it was to be a child… doors were too big, toilets were too big, and no one ever dies… So simple, and yet so full of dramatic tension and the wonder of childhood.

The big moment in Elizabethtown seems to be the pyrotechnics in the dance hall near the end. Never mind that they look cheesy. What’s amazing is the amount of screen time and the number of shots expended to introduce a plot device. Bandits has plot devices and pyrotechnics, too, but though they may be just as audacious and improbable, they work because they reveal more about the characters, and further the story in a way that feels authentic because it fits with what we have learned about the characters up till now. Besides, it’s downright fun. As I complete this reflection months after I began it, I can’t even remember what purpose the exploding chandelier had in the Elizabethtown story. I just know it was not fun. It took me out of the story (as did every musical interlude throughout the movie). As I watched it in slowmo from multiple angles, it struck me as gratuitous and contrived… as though the director said, “by golly, we paid for these special effects and we’re going to USE them!”

Rent both movies and watch them back to back. I suggest you watch Elizabethtown first…. so the evening ends on a happy note. And then write to tell me if you agree that Bandits, for all its hijinks and hyperbole, is still a story that feels authentic because of the characters that play out on the screen!

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