Amid a glut of onscreen romances that contain between 90 and 99 percent schtick, Jun Ichikawa’s Tony Takitani and Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown mercifully vary the boy-meets-girl formula. On their own terms, however, they’re not exactly surprising. Ichikawa’s minimalist fable is entirely faithful to the worldview of its source, Japanese author Haruki Murakami, and Crowe’s social comedy works only tiny variations on the established motifs of his favorite writer, himself. The two are nearly diametric: Whereas Ichikawa’s reading of Murakami is sparse and keen, Crowe’s latest homage to Crowe is overstuffed and blunt.
In Murakami’s fiction, men endure lonely lives, then fall in love with women who inevitably vanish, leaving the men even lonelier. A short story published three years ago in The New Yorker, “Tony Takitani” sketches the author’s recurring theme in under 7,000 words. A Tokyo illustrator named for an American friend of his father, the title character is the son of mostly absent jazz trombonist Shozaburo and a mother who died when he was an infant. Tony (the versatile Issey Ogata, who also plays Tony’s father) suffers as a child for his presumed un-Japaneseness, withdrawing into his gift for draftsmanship. In the pre-computer-graphics ’80s, Tony’s powers of observation and lack of interest in interpretation make him a master of technical illustration. He’s so successful that he can buy a relatively large house in western Tokyo, where he lives contentedly alone. Then Eiko (Rie Miyazawa) walks into the frame, 15 years younger and impeccably dressed.
The two marry and are quietly happy. Tony is impressed by the way Eiko “inhabits” her designer clothes, but her passion for apparel eventually becomes a problem. She can’t stop buying, and Tony has to convert an entire room into a closet. (Lucky he has that big house.) Tony gently asks his wife to restrain her lust for Valentino, Saint Laurent, and Armani. She tries to honor his request. Tony is asking too much, however, and as Eiko attempts to return a few freshly purchased items, she disappears—a moment that Ichikawa renders even more discreetly than Murakami did. Left with a room full of expensive garments, Tony devises a plan: He will hire a woman who’s exactly Eiko’s size to be his assistant—and to wear his lost wife’s clothes. Enter Hisako, who looks eerily like Eiko. (She should; she’s played by the same actress.) Hisako is overwhelmed by the beauty of Eiko’s wardrobe, but Tony begins to question the wisdom of his scheme.
Rather than disguise the story’s slightness, Ichikawa’s 75-minute adaptation emphasizes it. Tony Takitani is an attempt to translate the sparseness of Murakami’s prose into images, using just a few sets, painstaking camera placement, and taciturn close-ups. As Ryuichi Sakamoto’s slo-mo piano score dribbles through the speakers, the film recounts Shozaburo’s life—very different from his son’s, yet equally isolated—mostly in sepia-toned faux photos. When it switches to Tony’s story, the colors are almost as wan as in the monochrome stills, the characters only slightly more active. Panning shots of Tokyo avoid identifiable landmarks, and a European shopping trip is rendered entirely in tight shots of shopping bags and legs scurrying on designer-shod feet. Hirokawa Taishi’s camera frequently glides from left to right, introducing new scenes as if unspooling a Japanese scroll (albeit backwardly—such scrolls traditionally read from right to left).
Ichikawa retains many of Murakami’s words, read by narrator Nishijima Hidetoshi. Although he misplaces a bit of the writer’s humor, he adds a cross-media playfulness by sometimes having the characters answer or complete the narrator’s thoughts. Not, of course, that they have too many thoughts, or that they would reveal them if they did: There’s nothing much to Tony’s existence save for a profound sense of nothingness. That may sound ridiculous, and until its crucial transition, Tony Takitani does seem merely a tiny joke. In its most piercing moments, however, the movie renders the absurd as tragic—exactly the trick accomplished by Murakami’s most affecting passages. Tony Takitani is both a perfectly executed bow to the author and a small but aching evocation of his primary concern, loss.
Returning to young love and pop music after his disastrous detour into Vanilla Sky country—a trip taken at the behest of Jerry Maguire star and Elizabethtown co-producer Tom Cruise—Cameron Crowe follows his customary itinerary. His excruciatingly contrived and remarkably tasteless new rom-com introduces a man, a woman, and a soundtrack so essential that the writer-director has made it a plot device. Crowe has described the movie as “probably even more of a musical than Almost Famous” and its Southern-rock and -soul set list (“Free Bird”? Hell, yeah!) as “the movie’s inner voice, a friendly guide and a secret muse.”
That’s good to know, because the not-so-secret muse is Kirsten Dunst in her most annoying role ever: zany, garrulous, big-hearted flight attendant Claire. She enters the story when Drew (Orlando Bloom) takes a redeye flight to Kentucky, where his dad has just unexpectedly died. Claire comes on strong, but Drew can’t take his mind off another recent fatality, his job. Continuing his obsession with careers that combine sports, hype, show biz, and big bucks, Crowe put his protagonist to work at Mercury Shoe Co., a poorly resoled Nike. The Drew-designed Spasmotica has just flopped, to the tune of almost $1 billion in losses—worse than the Bee Gees/Peter Frampton Sgt. Pepper’s, to recall an event from Crowe’s rock-writer period—and flamboyant CEO Phil (Alec Baldwin, natch) has amiably let him go. So, of course, has Drew’s calculating executive-suite squeeze, Ellen (Jessica Biel). The poor guy has just arranged his Rube Goldberg– style suicide when he gets the call to go to Kentucky.
Representing his mother (Susan Sarandon) and sister, Drew is supposed to block any Old South notions of a proper burial, have his dad cremated, and return to Oregon with the ashes. But he finds that he actually likes Dad’s side of the family and is swayed by their arguments in favor of tradition. Eventually, Mom changes her mind and travels to Kentucky for the wacky memorial service, winning over the crowd with her comic monologue about adjusting to widowhood. Her appearance is a minifeature in itself, and Sarandon’s performance outshines everything else in the film. Yet Crowe foolishly second-guesses her, following her speech with the slapstick overkill of a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band, a fire, and a stampede. (A riff on firetrap-metal-club fan incinerations? Hilarious!)
Despite the time devoted to them, Drew’s lively mom and dead dad are only the excuse for introducing Mercury’s man overboard to Claire. In a switch of Crowe’s usual formula of unworthy man beseeching noble woman—which has brought us such entreaties as “You rock my world” and “You complete me”—Elizabethtown makes its female lead the romantic hunter-gatherer. Fair enough, but Crowe has supplied his heroine with dialogue that would embarrass even the lowest-grade chick flick. Claire’s babble about her ability to discern emotional truth and serve as the ideal provisional lover would drive off any sane man, let alone one who’s planning his own imminent death. Yet even as Claire denies that they can have a long-term relationship, she plots Drew’s life for him, proving that she’s his perfect mate by presenting him with an elaborate handmade atlas for back-road-tripping home to Oregon, complete with 41 hours of impeccably programmed music on burned CD-Rs. (Elton John? Hell, yeah!)
You may wonder how Claire, who flies around the country, became an expert on secondary highways, or when she had the time to assemble this massive personalized box set. (Maybe she has one for every other state, just in case she meets a guy who looks like Orlando Bloom and might want to drive home listening to “Let It All Hang Out.”) But never mind that; it’s time to meet America, a land of such quaint attractions as farmer’s markets, tatty old dinosaur theme parks, and—to the tune of U2’s “Pride”—the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Yes, Crowe really does plop the civil-rights movement into his carry-on bag as if it were just another Tom Petty T-shirt, trivializing the historic struggles of people who never had the director’s easy access to showbiz and big bucks. Everybody is a star, it’s still rock ’n’ roll to me, show me the money—Crowe no longer knows the difference between a tagline and an insight, a characterization and a consumer profile. After Elizabethtown tanks, maybe he can get a job in marketing at the Mercury Shoe Co.CP