Sony Pictures Releasing
It is with great sadness that I must report the passing of writer/director Cameron Crowe.
The once talented creator of such sweet, honest and funny films as Say Anything and Almost Famous finally succumbed to complications from the unknown illness he contracted while riding public transportation on the set of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report in 2002. The first evidence of his diminished capacity came three years later with the release of Elizabethtown, a film which actively challenges viewers to keep watching with the passing of each dreadful minute, but fans hoped his malady would soon pass. Crowe’s 2011 film, We Bought a Zoo, showed hints of the humanity and heart he was known for, but hopes for a full recovery were dashed this week with the release of the emotionally flat, unfunny and narratively messy Aloha.
Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) was once a hotshot in the Air Force, but the lure of the private sector led to him becoming a contractor for the likes of shady billionaires and profiteers. Brian’s latest job brings him back to Hawaii and the military base where he once shined professionally to help finesse certain aspects of a new deal between the U.S. government and tech giant Carson Welch (Bill Murray) – specifically, they need him to broker an amicable outcome with local elders so they can break ground on a bigger, better base amid the island state’s beautiful greenery.
In addition to reuniting with old military friends and acquaintances Brian also returns to face Tracy (Rachel McAdams), the woman he left behind, who’s now married to the strong and silent Woody (John Krasinski) and mother to two kids. He also gets a military handler in the form of Capt. Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a young, energetic go-getter in touch with Hawaii’s more mystical elements, and while it’s against both regulations and common sense she falls for his sexy exterior/damaged interior mash-up secure in the knowledge that she will be the one to fix him.
The most glaring issue (of many) here is that Aloha breaks the first rule of romantic comedies in that it’s neither romantic nor all that comedic. One or two laughs aside the attempts at humor feel both forced and flat. Normally reliable funnymen including Murray, Danny McBride and Alec Baldwin are given nothing of value to work with and too little time with which to do it. McBride does get the biggest laugh by far, but it’s a lonely guffaw that echoes off the emptiness of the rest of the film.
Cooper and Stone are okay – although her spunky jet-fighter pilot with Redbull in her veins and mana in her heart feels entirely unconvincing and a product of a completely different movie – but the romance between them is non-existent. Crowe’s script rushes them together leaving viewers wondering what they see in each other aside from an island quickie, but none of it clicks emotionally or dramatically. Seemingly within days she’s determined to rescue his troubled soul from himself and he’s in over his head in love with her. I don’t know the Hawaiian word for “bullshit,” but it’s beginning to sound suspiciously like “aloha.”
Far more interesting and rewarding are the brief glimpses we’re given into the struggles haunting Tracy and Woody’s relationship. The small detour into their marital issue makes the missing emotion elsewhere stand out like a volcano erupting with nothing but hot air, and by the time the film commits fully to its subplot involving evil satellites and sad Hawaiians we’re wanting only to return to Earth and the real people who inhabit it.
The film is attractive – the cast, obviously, but also the island’s natural beauty – and while the movie’s never all that interesting it’s also never dull to the senses. Traditional Hawaiian songs fill the air alongside more Crowe-like tracks from artists like Fleetwood Mac, Beck and Radical Face. He also shows some respect for the culture and people with time given to local traditions and beliefs as well as a supporting turn by Dennis Bumpy Kanahele, leader of the Sovereign Nation of Hawaii organization, playing himself. It’s ultimately little more than a cursory glance, but it’s still nice to see the effort.
Ultimately the film feels like a patchwork of ideas with gaps between them big enough for a school of Humuhumunukunukuapua`a to swim through. Crowe starts with the same blueprint that powered Jerry Maguire – a troubled and lost man, the idealistic and forgiving woman who believes in him when no one else will, a tender moment between the broken man and the woman’s child – and then adds in another couple’s romantic foibles, magical realism involving spirits and wind gusts and an utterly out of place race against time featuring space action and Chinese hackers. The disparate elements are held loosely together by contrivance and disinterest, neither of which it turns out are all that great as adhesives.
I joked above about Crowe’s passing because cruel humor is part of my grieving process, but his last three movies – basically the last decade of his feature film career – show a writer/director completely at odds with the artist he once was. His strengths were varied, but chief among them was his ability to craft three dimensional characters and surround them with a tangible mix of emotion, pain and humor – you know, life itself. Hell, even his under-appreciated Vanilla Sky tells an honest and human tale amid the facial disfigurement, car accidents and fantastic supporting turn by Kurt Russell.
Crowe may not actually be gone, but the muddled mediocrity of Aloha means our hopes for a return to form from the man has given up the ghost. In lieu of flowers please buy a ticket for one of the far better movies playing in theaters this weekend.
The Upside: Final scene featuring Tracy’s daughter Grace (Danielle Rose Russell); likable cast; Hawaii sure is beautiful
The Downside: A rom-com that’s neither romantic nor funny; main story line devoid of emotion; missiles and mysticism silliness; Emma Stone’s performance/character feel over the top