There are two Cameron Crowes. There’s the Oscar winner (screenplay) for Almost Famous, and the engaging populist behind Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything, and Jerry Maguire. Then there is the Cameron Crowe of such flimsy, false art as Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown, and now, sadly, Aloha. Notorious as part of the whole Sony/The Interview email hack (where it was revealed that studio suits hated the film), we now see what all the fuss is about. In trying to encapsulate the magic of the tropical paradise with the politics of the mainland, Crowe creates a crushing bore, a talky attempt at cultural clash where nothing is very funny and everything is rather forced.
Bradley Cooper plays Brian Gilcrest, a one-time military hot shot now forced to work for an eccentric (Bill Murray). After an incident in Afghanistan, where he was nearly killed, he returns to the Hawaiian base where he was once stationed. There, he reconnects with an old flame (Rachel McAdams) who is now married to a fellow pilot (John Krasinski) and has several run-ins with the locals. He also comes across island liaison and “minder” Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a straight-laced officer hoping to keep Gilcrest in line. While his initial goal is to convince King Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele (himself) to allow a public gate to be moved, it turns out there may be a more nefarious reason behind Gilcrest’s proposal.
If that plot description sounds a bit odd, that’s because Aloha is almost impossible to explain. It’s like a series of motives without a narrative resolve. People are clearly pushed to do certain things here, but only end up talking about them, not doing them. If this were just a staid romantic comedy, or some kind of military lampoon, we might accept the awkwardness. But Crowe throws everything into his script that he can — mysticism, magical realism, caricatures, soap operatics, etc. — hoping something with resonate with the audience. Nothing does. Instead, we sit gobsmacked as great actors offer little chemistry and big ideas drown in a wave of twee island hokum.
As a director, Crowe does a little better. He remains (along with Tarantino and the true maestro, Martin Scorsese), one of the few filmmakers who understands the power of a well-placed song. The soundtrack can be a bit obvious (Elvis? Really?) and too on point, but it does help move us beyond some very obvious rough spots. He also makes good use of the native surroundings, showcasing Hawaii as the verdant, vibrant land it is. And what about all those complaints of Crowe “whitewashing” the storyline to avoid the inherent population issue? Well, Stone may be the biggest example of this controversy (a Caucasian playing part-islander), but the rest of Aloha is very respectful.
In essence, Aloha feels like a grounded farce that never takes flight. When you’ve got certified scene stealers like Alec Baldwin and Danny McBride (as military officers), you expect something akin to Dr. Strangelove. Or perhaps even a bit like Crowe’s Say Anything, except with bigger odds and more jokes. But because we could care less about these characters, because their inner needs are never as obvious as their outer demands, we become immune to their potential charms. Cooper and Stone are a couple of the most likeable stars currently working in Hollywood. Here, they’re barely tolerable.
That’s because Crowe has become one of those artists who’s clearly drank his own Kool-Aid. Give him a little gold statue and he suddenly loses the reason we rewarded him in the first place. Instead of small stories with big ideas, he seems to have embraced the exact opposite. As a result, the pluck and resolve he used to show has been replaced with an air of smug self-satisfaction. At one point in his career, Cameron Crowe made movies for audiences. Now he’s making them for himself. Aloha is byproduct of such cinematic navel gazing.