Writer-director Cameron Crowe can create a splendid romantic comedy. He's proved that time and again with movies like Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous.
His latest attempt, Aloha, is an uneven, wasteful film that never fully realizes its potential. That's somehow even more frustrating than if he'd just churned out a bad movie.
Crowe came into Aloha with a cast that could melt Silver Linings Playbook's off the planet; a dreamy setting that people wouldn't mind spending eternity staring at; a script that writes itself (people will throw money at you to see Bradley Cooper kiss Emma Stone and Rachel McAdams); and the actual, real-life experience of living in Hawaii.
It's both mystifying and unfair that he managed to take all that and turn it into whatever Aloha is. I just could not shake the film's haunting and naked mediocrity. I was left thinking about Aloha long after I left the theater. The movie taunted me, in a way that other bad movies hadn't.
Is Aloha a fan-fiction sequel to American Sniper?
There's a strange symmetry between Aloha and American Sniper. Even though Aloha has been clearly marketed as a romantic comedy, it's also (somehow) a film about the militarization of space, the war in Afghanistan, and embezzling.
I honestly am still a little bit murky about what exactly Cooper's character, Brian Gilcrest, was doing in Afghanistan, but he is constantly reminding everyone that something bad happened and he was left for dead. Shit got real in Kabul. Gilcrest, who now exhibits a pronounced limp, is tasked with assuaging the fears of Native Hawaiians that their sky is about to be militarized. The film also touches on themes of fatherhood, military dads, and military dads who are bad at fatherhood.
There were several points when the film probably should have paused for a PowerPoint presentation to explain what exactly happened, since Crowe is purposely vague about Gilcrest's past. But it all reads like some kind of strange American Sniper fever dream where the main enemies include China, Chinese hackers, and snipers in outer space. And Gilcrest, with his limp, is now trying to find his way into a war where he's been made obsolete. This is as entertaining as any of the stories that Crowe wants to tell, but it's probably not intentional.
There is a lot of talk about Native Hawaiian traditions coming from the lips of white people
There are moments when Crowe asks viewers to suspend their disbelief, take his hand, and plunge into his brand of magical realism. The biggest leap is believing that Emma Stone is the progeny of a Chinese-Hawaiian dad and is named Captain Allison Ng.
Before Aloha was released, a major criticism was that it was a story of white people taking place in Hawaii where 60 percent of the population is Asian/Pacific Islander. I guess Captain Ng "counts" as an Asian-ish/Pacific Island-ish character, but she's also played by Emma Stone, so it's hard to count this as a victory for diversity.
The only nonwhite character with an actual role is Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele, who plays himself. Bumpy is the head of state for the Nation of Hawai'i, a village and group of Native Hawaiians who believe in the independence and sovereignty of Hawaii. The films respects and humanizes Bumpy, and presents him and his beliefs fairly. But the effort to include people of color, especially people who look like Bumpy, the people in his village, or descendants of Native Hawaiians, stops and starts with Bumpy.
Instead, it's through characters like blonde Captain Ng, blue-eyed Gilcrest, and white children that we learn about Hawaiian mythology and traditions like hula. It's "diversity" without actual diversity. The other nonwhite characters are unnamed or playing roles in the background.
There's also a fair bit of fetishizing of Hawaiian culture that isn't unlike the way films in the past have tried to represent Native American culture. There's oohing and cooing at how mystical and spiritual Hawaiians' values are, but the film's treatment of Hawaiian culture never delves deep into how tourism has changed the islands or anything beyond the surface level.
3) Captain Ng is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Captain Allison Ng (Stone) is the cinematic creature known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Here are just a few of her "traits":
- Captain Ng likes peppermint tea.
- Captain Ng is aggressively chipper.
- Captain Ng doesn't knock on your hotel room door and ask to come in. Instead, she will swing around your attached balcony.
- Captain Ng knows about iridium flares.
- Captain Ng has flings.
- Captain Ng has a great dance sequence with Bill Murray.
- Captain Ng will run by your house two or three times to see if you're home.
- Captain Ng can fly fighter planes.
It's sort of fitting that Ng is a MPDG, since it was Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown, specifically the character Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst) that prompted critic Nathan Rabin's creation of the term.
"The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures," Rabin wrote in 2007.
Eight years later, Captain Ng serves that role for Gilcrest. Sometimes she does this literally, by talking about Hawaiian mythology and the sky. And sometimes she does this just by being an attractive woman.
"Boy am I a goner," Gilcrest tells himself while staring at Captain Ng and signaling to the audience that he's about to get wrapped up in life's infinite adventures.
4) Everyone in this movie is so good ... and so stranded by a weak script
This movie is filled with the most likable (white) actors and actresses in Hollywood — John Krasinski, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, Bradley Cooper. Krasinski and McAdams are a heartbreaking couple. Murray underplays his eccentric space entrepreneur. And Cooper carries his Silver Linings charm into this movie.
Stone, in particular, commits to her role as Captain Ng. She's playing a literal trope, but she's so impossibly disarming that you almost don't mind. It's a strong departure from her cynical burnout role in Birdman, yet it's just as convincing.
If we could somehow transport this cast into a film from another director (even Nancy Meyers), I believe we could have the greatest romantic comedy of our generation. Unfortunately, we (and they) are stuck playing unimaginative tropes in a not very funny movie.
5) Crowe is capable of so much more
Restoration and redemption are the themes that run through Aloha. Hawaii is the place where Gilcrest made a name for himself, and he hopes to find himself there again. And there's constant talk of "The Arrival," a myth where a god returns and starts a new beginning for Hawaii.
The same could be said of Crowe's relationship to this movie.
Crowe, who won everyone over with his earlier films, has been in a rut. Elizabethtown and We Bought a Zoo weren't great, with the former considered one of the worst movies of his career. Both movies also suffered from being stuffed to the limit with kooky, too-curious-by-half plots.
There was hope that perhaps Aloha could be Crowe's comeback. Perhaps he could rediscover himself in the romantic comedy genre where he first found his footing. The cast was good, and Crowe himself lived in Hawaii for many months researching this film.
The stars were aligned for a great Crowe rom-com. But that's not what we got.
Aloha, like Zoo and Elizabethtown, could have used more discipline. Crowe falls back into his old habits of cramming too much into the story and not taking away enough. There's too much going on in spots, and not enough in others.
The space war is okay, but the really interesting stuff is the Hawaiian mythology. The love triangle is fine, but Rachel McAdams is underused. And if we aren't going to really address Afghanistan, why does the story always come back to it?
Like the characters, we're left waiting for something mythical or spectacular to happen. Unfortunately for Crowe, we'll probably find it in another movie this summer.