The film begins with industrial designer Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) as he walks towards the company he works in, an important international shoe company. As he enters the building, his boss Phil (Alec Baldwin) starts discussing the failure of his project and its effects on the company overall, costing the company 972 million dollars. After he is fired, his girlfriend breaks up with him. Drew goes to his apartment, and defeated, attempts to commit suicide. However, his sister calls and tells him that his father has just died and he has to go to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, to bring the body back home.
At the airport, Drew's sister (Judy Greer) and mother (Susan Sarandon) tell him that they wish to cremate his father's body. While on the nearly empty plane, a quick-witted flight attendant, Claire (Kirsten Dunst), jokingly tells him that his being on the airplane has kept the airline from going out of business, and gives him a free seat in first class. Despite his quick refusal, she insists that he move up to first class, because she doesn't want to have to walk all the way back to coach just for him. After he moves, Claire starts talking to him, and draws him a map to get to Elizabethtown. They go separate ways; however Drew will discover later that Claire wrote her phone number on the back of the map.
Despite the map and directions from Claire, Drew gets hopelessly lost on the highway. He finally arrives hours late. Drew notices the local traditions and the great respect shown to his dad's memory everywhere. A boy on a bike leads him to the funeral home, where Drew's cousin is waiting for him.
During the wake, Drew sees various members of his family, who all greet him as the "California boy", although his family had only lived in California for eighteen months before moving to Oregon. After viewing his father's body, he meets with some of his relatives near the burial plot they would like the body buried in. However, Drew insists on honoring his mother's wishes for a cremation.
Drew checks into a hotel and attempts to call home, but receives no answer. He remembers the map that Claire gave him with her number on it and decides to call her, but again receives no answer. He falls asleep, but is awakened by a call from Claire. The pair talks for most of the night and meet in the early morning. After a few days, he sees Claire in his hotel, and they spend the rest of the day together, including visiting the mortuary where Drew's father is to be cremated.
After making the final decision to cremate his father, Drew visits his relatives in Elizabethtown to tell them about it. In the kitchen he sees a photo of his father near a flame from the stove. Feeling guilty and regretful, he runs to the mortuary to stop the cremation, but arrives too late and is given an urn containing his father's ashes. Drew returns to the hotel carrying his father's ashes and sees Claire talking with the guests of a wedding at the hotel. Claire and Drew go to the room where the wedding rehearsal dinner had taken place and where his father's memorial service would also be held. They talk about their feelings for one another and agree they are not right for each other. However, they kiss and end up sleeping together. Claire leaves the hotel in the morning while Drew is still asleep. However, Drew wakes up and meets up with Claire before she leaves, and tells her his plan to finish his business in Kentucky, and then return home to commit suicide, because of the massive failure of his shoe company. Claire insists that suicide would only be cowardly, and that he'd make a better impact by living. They plan to meet up again at Drew's father's memorial.
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