‘Elizabethtown’ After the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

DVD cover for Elizabethtown
This is a guest review by Amanda Civitello.
When she was ten, my little sister pronounced herself a “Young Feminist in Training” and authored an editorial for a school newspaper entitled, “Sarah Palin: Feminist? No!” I was surprised, then, when she said last week that she wanted to watch Elizabethtown for our girls’ movie night. “Really?” I asked. “The film that launched the Manic Pixie Dream Girl?” She shrugged, and, as she predicted, I loved it. I loved it for what it is: a fun little moralistic summer movie with a good soundtrack and an interesting – if somewhat farfetched – premise, as well as an incredibly moving final fifteen minutes. The story of a failed shoe designer whose plans for suicide in the wake of his “fiasco” are foiled by his father’s premature death, writer/director Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown stars Orlando Bloom as Drew, the brooding architect of a catastrophic business failure, and Kirsten Dunst as Claire, the woman who descends from the sky – practically literally; she’s a flight attendant – to rescue him from his melancholy with an overabundance of quirky good cheer. But rather than find it a guilty pleasure, something I liked in spite of the inadequacies and disappointments of its manic pixie of a female lead character, I found that Claire didn’t really merit the MPDG moniker at all.
From its first appearance, in a review of Elizabethtown by film critic Nathan Rabin, the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” seemed preternaturally possessed of staying power. It had two things going for it: a catchy name and truth. There are too many films in which a female lead seems to exist solely to improve the outlook of the male lead with a winning combination of pep, quirkiness, and vintage clothing. Unsurprisingly, it’s very easy to find a plethora of examples of characters fitting this trope.
Kirsten Dunst (Claire) and Orlando Bloom (Drew) in Elizabethtown. This is just before Drew tells Claire she needn’t make jokes to be likeable.

 

The idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was, at the beginning, a critique of those films that view women through an unabashedly male gaze, in which the viewer identifies primarily with the leading man and is therefore predisposed to regarding the leading lady as an extension of the man. (Elizabethtown makes Drew the identifiable character from the first few moments, which consist of voiceovers from Orlando Bloom. We’re definitely supposed to watch Claire, not stand in her shoes.) In many cases – as in the case of Elizabethtown, as Nathan Rabin so rightly argued – the female character does serve to remind the male of his zest for life, and that’s all she seems to do. The MPDG was meant to describe a phenomenon of the male gaze as evident in scripts written by men and films made by men, as Rabin explicitly stated: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” At its inception, therefore, the MPDG was all about critiquing men. In recent years, however, as writers have pointed out, the MPDG label has expanded to become more broad. It’s often used to describe a kind of woman, rather than how she is written/seen by a man, and to incorporate characters and films – like Annie Hall – without good reason, and has actually been used to describe real women. It’s even become shorthand for one real woman in particular: Zooey Deschanel. It’s ridiculously simplistic and extraordinarily misogynistic to reduce a real woman to a trope.
For me, then, the MPDG label, while it started out as a catchy, if somewhat simplisti, truthism, turned problematic and even pejorative in recent years. (As a side note, because it isn’t really germane to this post: using the word “manic” is troubling as well. After all, “manic” is a weighty word, associated as it is with bipolar disorder. There are other, but less memorable, words that could better describe the kind of peppy, preternatural cheerfulness that hangs about these characters. My discomfort with the use of “manic” is compounded when the character demonstrates depressive tendencies, as does Claire in Elizabethtown. When the term is applied to real people with real conditions it’s even more troubling, as it is here to Edith Bouvier Beale, who suffered from a stress-related condition with tragic consequences.) It was, therefore, with great relief that I read the many articles this past spring/summer heralding the demise of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. You don’t need me to summarize them, so check out these posts from Jezebel and xojane, and let’s get back to Elizabethtown, because now that we have poked holes in the trope itself, and others have concurred or found other reasons to get rid of it, I think the film that launched the MPDG deserves a second look.
“Do you ever just think, ‘I’m fooling everybody?'” — Claire
Elizabethtown is an interesting little indie-esque effort from Cameron Crowe. By and large, it succumbs far too readily to mistakes that detract from the enjoyment of the film. The great moments – and there are two – manage to redeem it in my estimation. The first is a long conversation between Drew and Claire, in which Bloom and Dunst really manage to capture the joy of recognizing oneself in someone else, and in which Crowe effectively contrasts their discussion – alternately probing and amusingly shallow – with the ordinary tasks we all do while on the phone. The second sequence is Drew’s cross-country road trip with his father’s ashes, following a map that Claire has (mostly unbelievably) made for him. The stops on Claire’s map are all places of historic, national, or cultural importance. Drew scatters some of his father’s ashes in the waters of the Mississippi and along a stretch of flat American highway surrounded by farmland. He visits the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel and Earnestine and Hazel’s Bar & Grill in Tennessee. It’s a reminder of all the things worth seeing and visiting in this country (and, like lots of other reviewers, has made me totally game for a road trip). Drew’s trip is juxtaposed with memories of his childhood, and we see little Drew dancing and roadtripping with his dad, and it’s this connection – the idea that someone’s dad can be to him as great a man as Martin Luther King, Jr. – that is really compelling. But these effective and moving scenes are hampered by the many, many scenes that don’t work, most notably Drew’s mother Hollie’s (Susan Sarandon) big moment at her husband’s memorial. That, unfortunately, is the victim of poor editing: the first part of her scene is a comedy routine detailing all the things she’s tried to learn since her husband’s death, and at one point, borders on the ridiculously crass (it is a memorial service, after all). The second part, the part that should have stood mostly on its own, with only a few words of introduction, is a moving little tap dance she performs to their favorite song. Like the road trip that follows, it’s a quiet, personal moment that’s deeply rooted in the little things that give life meaning.
With regard to its female characters, Elizabethtown has far more issues. Of the three female characters – Claire, Drew’s sister Heather, and their mother, Hollie – each is the victim of poor writing. The characterization of Heather in particular is downright egregious: it seems that her only personality trait is a kind of modern-day hysteria. She’s a woman who begs her brother to “handle everything” with regard to their father’s death because he’s the only one capable of it, who watches her mother flit from activity to activity in a frantic display of unmoored grief, and occasionally widens her eyes and throws up her hands and shrieks. While deep, raw grief is to be expected, as a grown woman with a kid, Heather is the caricature of the stereotypical woman who just can’t deal with it, because she’s just too darn emotional.
Drew and Claire

 

Claire, on the other hand, is at least compelling in spite of her faults. She’s interesting, and she has an admittedly underdeveloped back story. She’s a self-described “helper” and a “substitute person.” She invents trips to Hawaii and waxes on about boyfriends that don’t exist. She is, at her heart, immersed in much the same pursuit of happiness as Drew. She has her own struggles which we grasp only tenuously. The problem with Elizabethtown is that it doesn’t explore that complexity nearly enough – but not that it doesn’t exist in the first place. Claire isn’t a vacuously vapid MPDG; she has beginnings of a complex characterization that the writer only hints at, but doesn’t seem to think is worth developing. There were opportunities to do so: Why doesn’t the conversation about Claire’s unnecessary jokes continue? Why don’t we get to see an answer to Drew’s confrontation about the faux-boyfriend? Why, when we know as well as Drew that she has something slightly darker lurking beneath the quirky veneer, do we not get to see it? In my book, that’s a bit worse than creating a one-note plot device of a character.
So: did Claire deserve to be the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl? I don’t think so. I think it was perhaps a fair assessment upon a single viewing. But tucking her neatly into the MPDG box denies vital aspects of Claire’s character. True, we don’t know much about her ambition or life apart from Drew. That’s absolutely a failing on Cameron Crowe’s part as screenwriter. And for part of the film, Claire certainly does fill that role for Drew. She’s there to answer the phone when he wants someone – anyone – to talk to, happy to sit on hold waiting for him while he bounces between his fuming ex-girlfriend and crying sister, neither of whom – credit where it’s due – particularly like being kept on hold. Claire is the placid one, patiently waiting her turn to work her magic, as Drew expects. What saves Elizabethtown is that Drew comes to recognize that his sort-of girlfriend is not an MPDG.
“I’m impossible to forget, but I’m hard to remember.” — Claire

 

When Drew says, “You don’t have to make a joke. I like you without the jokes,” he pinpoints Claire for what she is: a complex character hiding behind a cheerful façade. Midway through the movie, he realizes that he doesn’t need Claire to be anything but who she is. He calls her out for the jokes he previously found engaging and attractive and confronts her about her imaginary boyfriend Ben. It’s a shame that Elizabethtown doesn’t show us this new Claire. We’re presented with a glimpse of the real woman, and then she slips away. This most interesting shift, when Drew realizes that he doesn’t want an MPDG for a girlfriend anyway, is given the least amount of exploration, because the film almost immediately switches to the long closing sequence of Drew’s cross-country road trip, back to the overarching theme of grief.
Drew isn’t the only one to think this way. Claire’s theory of “substitute people” actively refutes the MPDG pigeonhole. In describing this theory – which basically sounds a whole lot like Manic Pixie(-ish) Dream People – Claire is asserting that she knows perfectly well the image she projects. The implication, of course, is that it’s nothing but an image. She knows just as well as Drew that what she’s saying is a convenient label, nothing more. She’s aware of it in much the same way as is Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, although Clementine is far more direct in her refutation of the MPDG label: “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.”
“You shouldn’t be a substitute for anybody.” — Drew

 

Elizabethtown’s major problem is that it makes a halfhearted attempt to be a love story, when really, it’d have done far better to focus on grief. It would have been a much more compelling movie, because the moments that shine are the ones which have Drew – sometimes with Claire – facing the full implications of what happened. Would we have read the film differently from the start if there’d been no sex scene, no agonizing introspection over whether or not they’re dating? I think so. And it would have been refreshing to see a movie featuring a male/female friendship that wasn’t aching to become more.
In the end, from the oversaturated colors to the overwhelming (but expectedly awesome) soundtrack and the entirely implausible narrative, Elizabethtown is a kind of fairy tale: the kind of story that sticks with you in spite of its tenuous grip on reality, the kind of confection that you enjoy even though it falls apart when you look too closely. Cameron Crowe would have been better to structure Elizabethtown like 500 Days of Summer. 500 Days of Summer works because of its nonlinear narrative and impressionistic array of short scenes. Where Elizabethtown explicates far too much, spelling out each character’s thought process and motivation, 500 Days of Summer allows for the audience to draw conclusions and make connections between scenes. When the story is written in such a way, when there’s no need to explain everything, the characters can be more spontaneous. They can have moments in which they do not conform to our expectations of them. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind works, in part, for the same reason. ESotSM and 500 Days of Summer are not passive films. They require far more thought from the audience than does a film like Elizabethtown, where all plotlines seem to find a neat little happy ending. They work precisely because they’re impressionistic, which is, at least in my opinion, the most effective way to treat a modern fairytale.

Amanda Civitello is a Chicago-based freelance writer and Northwestern grad with an interest in arts and literary criticism. She has contributed reviews of Rebecca, Sleepy Hollow, and Downton Abbey to Bitch Flicks. You can find her online at amandacivitello.com.

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