Drew Baylor is a designer for a shoe company. When his latest design, hyped to be a great accomplishment in his life, has a flaw that will cost the company $972 million to correct, Drew is shamed by his boss before he is dismissed. Disappointed in his failure, and the subsequent breakup with his girlfriend Ellen, he plans to commit suicide, only to be stopped at the last moment by a call from his sister Heather telling him that his father died while visiting family in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. When his mother Hollie refuses to go, following a dispute between her and the rest of the Kentucky Baylors, Drew volunteers to retrieve the body.
On the flight to Kentucky, Drew meets Claire, an optimistic and kind flight attendant who gives him a seat in first class, due to the plane being empty. She proves helpful to a despondent Drew, giving him directions and tips on getting to his destination before they part. When he gets to Elizabethtown, Drew is met by the family, and he makes arrangements for a cremation at his mother's request, despite the family's objections. While staying at a hotel, where a wedding reception is being held, Drew calls his mother and sister, then his ex-girlfriend as he continues to struggle with his suicidal thoughts. Finally, he calls Claire, and the two of them talk for hours. She impulsively suggests they meet before she has to depart on a flight to Hawaii.
Drew comes to grips with his father's death, and while he is visiting his Aunt Dora, his uncle Bill remarks on how his father would look in the suit. Drew realizes that he hadn't given the suit to the mortuary to be cremated, and has second thoughts on the procedure. He rushes out to stop the cremation but is too late and is given his father's ashes. Claire returns from her flight and unexpectedly meets him at his hotel. They sleep together, but when she tells him she loves him, he responds with regret that he failed at his life, admitting he was contemplating suicide. Claire leaves upset that Drew had not responded in kind.
Hollie and Heather arrive for the service, and Hollie tells an amusing anecdote with her eulogy. Claire arrives, and tells Drew to take one final trip with his father, giving him a map with special stops to make along the way. Drew follows the map home, spreading his father's ashes at memorable sites until the map gives him a choice; to either follow the map home, or follow new directions. He chooses the latter, which leads him to a small town fair, where he encounters Claire waiting for him. The two kiss and Drew finally realizes he loves her.
Jane Fonda was cast in Sarandon's role, but had to drop out. Ashton Kutcher, Seann William Scott, Colin Hanks, Chris Evans, and James Franco all auditioned for Bloom's part. Kutcher was actually hired to play Drew, but director Cameron Crowe decided during filming that the chemistry between him and Dunst was not right and Kutcher left the project. Biel auditioned for the female lead, but was given a smaller role as Drew's then-girlfriend.
There is a character named Ben who is mentioned as a love interest of Claire. In the original cut of the film, Ben is revealed to be Claire's brother.
Recognizable settings for scenes shot in Louisville, Kentucky include the Brown Hotel, Highland Middle School, and Cave Hill Cemetery. Although the exterior, lobby, and corridors of the Brown Hotel are seen, a passable replica of the Brown Hotel's Crystal Ball Room was re-created on a soundstage. While Bloom's character is supposedly traveling to "Elizabethtown" by car, he is going the incorrect direction on the road. He is also pictured going through the Cherokee Park tunnel, which happens to be on I-64. Elizabethtown is on I-65, about 60 miles in the other direction.
Although the title of the movie is Elizabethtown, most of the small town scenes were actually filmed in Versailles, Kentucky. Only two scenes portraying distinctive landmarks were filmed in Elizabethtown itself, because many of Elizabethtown's historic buildings have been replaced by chain stores and sprawl. A few scenes were filmed in LaGrange, Kentucky. Other local scenes were filmed in Otter Creek Park in Meade County, near Brandenburg. Filming also took place in Scottsbluff, Nebraska; Eureka Springs, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; and Oklahoma City.
In the original cut of the film shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, an epilogue reveals that the shoe designed by Drew turns out to be a hit, as it whistles with every step. This was cut from the release version of the film to prevent the ending seeming overly-drawn out.
Joni Mitchell's painting Hyde Park appears in this film. Previously, one of her paintings had appeared in Crowe's Vanilla Sky.
The film received generally negative reviews by critics. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 28% "Rotten" rating based on 166 reviews. The site's consensus is "This story of a floundering shoe designer who returns home for a family tragedy gets lost in undeveloped plot lines and lackluster performances." It holds a Metacritic score of 45 out of 100.
Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film a positive review, with three stars out of four. He describes the story as the most unrelenting "Meet Cute" in movie history. He goes on to say that although the film is nowhere near one of Crowe's great films like Almost Famous, it is sweet and good-hearted and has some real laughs. Ebert later reprinted on his site an analysis of the film pointing out various plot elements supporting the idea of Claire being an angel.
In his review, Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club created the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" to describe the "bubbly, shallow cinematic creature" stock character type that he stated Dunst plays in the film.
Elizabethtown was commercially released on October 14, 2005 in the United States. It was distributed to 2,517 theaters, and grossed $4,050,915 on its opening day. At the end of its opening weekend, the film had grossed $10,618,711, making it the third biggest gross for that weekend. Overall, the film grossed $52,034,889 worldwide within its release of 68 days.
The film features dozens of contemporary rock songs, and Kentucky natives My Morning Jacket play Ruckus, a fictional rock group who reunite during the film.