There was a time when a Cameron Crowe film was a sort of event. Not like an Avengers-sized event, but the arrival of a new film from Crowe meant that a certain kind of warm, funny, and smart comedy/drama would come along and enrich our lives for a couple of hours. Filmmakers often work in streaks, and Crowe’s run of Say Anything…, Singles, Jerry Maguire, and the near-perfect Almost Famous was electrifying for a particular generation of moviegoers.
That’s why Aloha is such a resounding disappointment. Crowe has struggled with recent films such as We Bought a Zoo and Elizabethtown, and at one point there were hints that the long-developing Aloha (which was previously called Deep Tiki) might restore some of his former glory. But that’s not the case: Aloha plays like a mash-up of three movies at once with none of them engaging or funny, and one of them not even necessary to have around. The sparkling character dynamics and clarity of his ensemble-based narratives are sadly nowhere to be found. Those leaked Sony emails from last year, in which former studio head Amy Pascal expressed alarm over the movie’s shortcomings, have tragically been proven accurate.
The film ostensibly centers on Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), a defense contractor who is trying to put himself back together after being caught in some kind of scandal in Afghanistan that nearly cost him his life. Gilcrest ends up on Hawaii, where he is supposed to make a deal for the military and his billionaire employer (Bill Murray) to use sacred Hawaiian lands for some sort of new installation. His military “handler” is Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a no-nonsense career officer who abruptly turns into a flirty coquette the minute Gilcrest flashes those eyes at her. Also in the mix is Gilcrest’s former love Tracy (Rachel McAdams), who he has not seen in 13 years but who also lives on Hawaii with her two kids and her military pilot husband (John Krasinski).
The various story threads move in fits and starts, and the characters behave in an almost random manner, giving the movie the air of something that has been reworked and re-edited to a point where it edges toward losing coherence. Cooper and Stone look great but lack chemistry, and get to know each other through one of the most incomprehensible exchanges of dialogue I’ve heard in a film in a long time. Their eventual romance seems more an obligation than anything organic, and somehow gets tangled with an equally murky subplot involving the Murray character’s true intentions (which seem to have been transplanted from an espionage thriller).
Meanwhile, a quick rewrite could have excised McAdams and Krasinski from the story completely. Tracy and Gilcrest’s own flirtation goes nowhere, and McAdams’ dissatisfaction with her marriage along with a “surprise” reveal come too late in the game to create any real emotional payoff. John Krasinski gets the shortest end of the stick here, playing a more benign version of Cooper’s emotionally closed-off American Sniper character, and he’s developed like a one-joke stereotype. Krasinski and Cooper do have one funny scene that offers a rare glimpse at the old Crowe wit, but it’s a fleeting one.
The resolution of all these jumbled storylines is handled in such awkward fashion that one has to wonder if Crowe simply gave up at some point. Without getting into spoilers, Gilcrest takes action in the film’s climax that not only seems ludicrous – if you can even understand what he’s doing – but gets him little more than a stern shouting-at by Alec Baldwin as a caricature of a general who looks like he’s about to explode in every shot. The stakes are never made clear and, in any case, they don’t matter anyway because a quick dialogue scene at the end gets Gilcrest out of trouble even though he essentially commits an act of corporate sabotage, if not outright terrorism.
The movie is often lovely to look at with lots of shots of Hawaii’s beautiful landscapes, but every time Crowe introduces Hawaiian music onto the soundtrack, it just made me think of the much better The Descendants. The script pays a passing lip-service to Hawaiian culture and spirituality (the woman played by the Swedish-Dutch-Irish Stone is apparently part-Asian and part-Hawaiian), but like everything else in the movie, it just seems lodged into the proceedings with no thought given as to whether it makes sense or not.
Crowe’s movies have always been about his terrific characters, so the final damnation of Aloha is that we simply don’t care about these people. Cooper, Stone, and McAdams are all appealing performers, but they meander through this confused narrative without ever becoming real or having interesting things to do. Cameron Crowe’s best films have always found the truth in human relationships, whether it be between lovers, co-workers or band members, but the only truth to be found in Aloha is that somewhere on his journey to Hawaii, this once great filmmaker got lost at sea.
Aloha opens in theaters Friday (May 29).