Director: Cameron Crowe (Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky)
Writer: Cameron Crowe
Producers: Scott Rudin, Cameron Crowe
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 105 min.
If the “write what you know” credo is true for Cameron Crowe, he must be living a pretty solid life. Films like Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous have deservedly lasted as cultural touchstones, but even then their conflicts seemed pretty inane in the grand scheme of things. It’d be something of an understatement to say that he’s been on a decline over the past decade, since at least the release of the dreadfully vanilla Elizabethtown demonstrated a complete lack of bite that had always been present in his work but only then had reached its apex to a resounding chorus of “who cares?” It took him six years to follow that up and while We Bought a Zoo wasn’t quite the piteous experience, it remained clear that Crowe had reached a point where his nascent charm had been too buried by sentimental earnestness that aroused as much rolling of the eyes as it did guilty smiles under a veil of confection.
It’s hard to argue that Aloha, his latest picture after another lengthy break, doesn’t continue the trend. Starring Bradley Cooper as a hotshot military contractor who returns to Hawaii after a disastrous setback in order to regain his mojo and respect, Crowe populates the luscious setting with as many pretty white faces as he can find. Emma Stone is the Air Force liaison sent to babysit Cooper’s Brian Gilcrest, Rachel McAdams is his former flame who is now shacked up with John Krasinski and their two adorable children, and even Bill Murray and Alec Baldwin pop in to steal a couple of scenes. While Aloha is (over) cluttered with a dense tapestry of plots ranging from nuclear arms in outer space to mythical Hawaiian legends, there’s always the pervading feeling that none of it really matters because everything will turn out okay in the end. Personal crises may be wreaking havoc on poor Gilcrest, but all you have to do is put on a Hall & Oates song and you can watch Emma Stone and Bill Murray deliver a deliriously entertaining dance sequence to make you forget all of your troubles.
Aloha has been met by some pretty scathing critical responses and I can’t find myself aggressively disagreeing with the vast majority of negatives layered out within them. The plot is absurdly stuffed with a myriad of strands that go nowhere or have no significance, not to mention the fact that the generic rom-com of the Cooper/Stone dynamic clashes against whatever is going on in the weird McAdams/Krasinski/Cooper love triangle, neither of which feels appropriate within the context of the poorly-delivered narrative thrust of the privately funded operation that Gilcrest is managing for Murray’s big wig Carson Welch, sending a satellite into outer space that has nefarious ulterior motives. Crowe jams ten different movies into 105 minutes here, and it’s hard to see how he could have possibly thought that any of them would go together. On their own, they’re hit or miss – the more conventional Crowe trademarks present obvious but nevertheless winning formulas, but the more high concept ideas about outer space are borderline incoherent in their delivery and the attempts to incorporate the drastically under-represented Hawaiian culture are half-baked at best. Together, this script is a catastrophe.
What’s most surprising about Aloha then is that for something as unwieldy, discombobulated and frankly ridiculous as this thing is on paper, for this particular viewer….it actually kind of worked. That’s not to say that I’m unaware of the many flaws that exist within the writing and could understandably drown this thing in a sea of woe for any reasonable viewer, but somehow the charms of Crowe and especially his winning cast managed to push through these heavy obstacles and deliver an experience that kept me smiling through its unreasonable plot calamities. Stone comes on strong and there’s unquestionably a Manic Pixie Dream Girl classification for the way she arrives to fix Cooper’s broken white boy with a heart of gold, but going along with that she has never been this likable or this well-suited for a part. Again, this is something that shouldn’t work on paper (as a multi-ethnic ace fighter pilot, reasonably speaking she is completely miscast), but her charm oozes through every moment and she makes it easy to forget the bizarreness of her casting.
As for the periphery characters, McAdams and Krasinski are stranded in a bland failing marriage subplot that seems to hardly exist within the mainframe of Cooper’s story, but both have a wholesome sweetness that lights up the screen with as much warmth as Eric Gautier’s sun-dappled cinematography. Their children, played by relative newcomers Jaeden Lieberher (the central kid in the also surprisingly winning St. Vincent) and Danielle Rose Russell defy all of the annoying precocious kid tropes, something which Crowe fell full into in We Bought a Zoo, with the latter in particular making magic out of the wordless final scene that could have been uncomfortably creepy in the hands of a lesser performer. And of course, as previously mentioned, Murray and Baldwin bring their trademark styles to tear up the screen in their well-paced appearances. At the end of the day, the smart casting here had a lot to do with making Aloha a wholeheartedly pleasant experience in a way that Elizabethtown was so far from ever being.
While that earlier film was saddled with the charisma vacuum that is Orlando Bloom occupying the lead, Aloha is bolstered by the immeasurably compelling Bradley Cooper who manages to make even the most drastic of character shifts work somehow. Gilcrest is practically, and unintentionally, as bipolar as his character from Silver Linings Playbook, which surely comes off from the fact that the film feels like it was chopped to disfiguration in the editing room (Jay Baruchel’s part was completely cut out), but Cooper keeps the energy up and the laughs coming. He thrives with each and every member of this talented cast, whether it’s the romantic spark that engages between him and Stone or the wordless exchange between him and Krasinski that’s played out with Annie Hall subtitles informing us of their inner dialogue. Everyone within the cast manages to bring something to the table, but it’s Cooper who carries it on his shoulders. Put an Orlando Bloom in that role and it would have absolutely sank the whole picture.
Like many things across the messy chaos that is Aloha, there are several moments within the romantic arc of Cooper and Stone’s characters that will surely make plenty of viewers cringe over how obviously telegraphed and lazily orchestrated they are, but for this viewer there was such a genuine charm and sweetness to it all that overcame the cynic that usually takes control. Call it the Cameron Crowe effect. As far back as his directorial debut Say Anything, he has been taking the most wretchedly sentimental of moments (that boombox scene is iconic in the best of ways when it should have been a disaster) and making them palatable. Aloha is too messy, telegraphed and derivative to ever hit the highs of his earlier work, yet from where I’m standing it is still a step in the right direction and far from the travesty that many have painted it as.