Film Review: “Aloha”

There’s so much vintage Cameron Crowe to be found and enjoyed in his latest writing/directing effort, Aloha, that it’s hard to pinpoint just why the film never really comes together or finds its stride. Crowe’s signature ear for dialogue and soundtrack selection is certainly on display here, as is his ability to bring to life on screen the particular personality of a place — in this case Hawaii — and like just about all of his work, the film feels personal and intimate. He also brings together a truly remarkable ensemble cast for the film, led by two of Hollywood’s most acclaimed stars right now, Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone, each of whom is coming off of Oscar nominations for almost universal acclaim for their recent work.

But despite having all that going for it, Aloha simply sinks under the weight of its good intentions and contrivances. It’s as though Crowe wished to make two completely different films — one a grown-up love story about being at a crossroads in one’s life and having to choose between the past and the future, and another about the beauty, mystery, and current political and social predicament of Hawaii — and mashed the two projects together, hoping they’d be compatible.

Turns out they were not, and the resulting film will no doubt be a tremendous disappointment to fans of Crowe and the cast, if people go to see the film at all.

Cooper plays Brian Gilcrest, a one-time Air Force officer whose once-successful second career as a military contractor hit the skids after a disastrous project failure in the Middle East. Offered a job by his former boss, eccentric Richard Branson-type industrialist Carson Welch (Bill Murray), and an opportunity to return to familiar stomping grounds in Hawaii, where many of his early career successes came about, Brian takes what he knows might be his last chance to get back on track, though it will most certainly bring him in contact with his personal “road not taken.” His ex-girlfriend Tracy (Rachel McAdams), now married to a soft-spoken Air Force pilot (John Krasinski, “The Office”) and a mother of two, represents many of the regrets that haunt Brian as he steps off the plane upon his arrival in the Aloha State, and the way he left things is something he knows he’ll be forced to deal with at some point during his stay.

What Brian doesn’t know and doesn’t expect is that the Air Force has assigned him a rather formidable liaison/babysitter to keep him on task and prevent another fiasco like the one in Afghanistan that continues to stain his professional reputation. Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), an F-22 pilot and a “fast burner” of an officer who does everything with the crisp alacrity of a lifelong overachiever, has it in mind to be Brian’s hands-on partner in getting the job done, a job which requires negotiating with leaders of a social and cultural independence movement for Hawaii that have deep suspicions about the U.S. military and their intentions for the land and sky they regard as holy and sacred. As much as Ng is a dedicated officer with her eyes on the fast track to career advancement, she’s also proudly a product of Hawaii’s culture and traditions, and believes them worth more than simply lip service from Brian’s employers. Her idealism and passion catch Brian off guard, and it’s not long before he’s completely disarmed and enchanted by them.

The Air Force and Welch just want the job done. Ng wants Brian to be more than just a “fixer” and to do right by everyone, including her once she lets herself get emotionally involved. Tracy, while in the midst of dealing with issues in her marriage, wants closure, and for Brian to truly understand just he left behind years ago. As for the man at the center of it all, he suddenly realizes he hasn’t a clue what he wants, aside from not to mess up again, with his career or with his personal life, but taking the next step in both may involve making compromises he’s not prepared to make, and to do something he hasn’t really been doing for quite a while: actually live.

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In execution, Aloha has some similarity to Crowe’s 2005 film Elizabethtown — both feature stories deeply tied to the personality of their unique settings, and both focus on protagonists damaged by their past choices, their past failures, unsure of how to move forward until a bright, irrepressible woman blows into their lives like a force of nature. That arrival brings both hope and fear, as well as demands some kind of reconciliation and resolution with what burdens the character, no matter how much they might try to avoid it. In both cases, it seems Crowe was certain that audiences would fall in love with the places where the stories took place the way he clearly did, and perhaps to a lesser extent fall in love with the “meet cute” scenarios from which the romantic plots of the films spring forth.

The results in that former film and even more so in Aloha are more or less the same. While sweet, earnest, and well-meaning in its reverential treatment of Hawaii’s native personality and the challenges faced by its people, it’s perhaps just a little too reassured in its own cleverness to work hard enough to get audiences to buy in. The performances delivered by the cast here could certainly be indicative of that, as well; after seeing Cooper and Stone bring such visceral intensity to their work in American Sniper and Birdman, respectively, what we get from them here is surprisingly uninspiring. In trying to convey Brian’s seen-it-all cynicism and guilt, Cooper just comes off as listless, while Stone looks and sounds like she’s working too hard to find the character’s voice, especially when delivering exposition explaining Ng’s understanding and belief in Hawaii’s native beliefs and traditions. The worst offender by far, though, is Murray, who mumbles his lines and blithely saunters in and out of scenes as though he knows he’s stealing a paycheck and getting a vacation to Hawaii in at the same time. Alec Baldwin and Danny McBride fare better in the sense that their characters have some genuinely interesting quirk to them; Baldwin, in fact, is a hoot to watch in all his way-too-tightly wound scenes and is easily the most memorable and enjoyable presence here.

Add to the mixed bag of performances here some questionable editing and pacing decisions — it’s somewhat telling that many lines of dialogue used in the trailers to market the film actually do not appear in the film’s final cut — and you get a film that lacks intensity and narrative direction, even when you know just from the setup just who’s going to end up with whom at the end. It just sort of wanders from one set of scenes to the next, prolonging certain narrative beats and diminishing others seemingly at random, until it finally finds some momentum near the end of its third act, and by then it’s way too late for that momentum to matter.

It’s disappointing, because this is a film no doubt audiences who look forward to and seek out movies with smarter scripts that defy easy classification will want to like this movie, and there are those moments of compelling, authentic-sounding dialogue and perfectly-paired music (seriously, with tracks crossing the gamut from classic rock to ’80s to Hawaiian standards, this is a soundtrack you may end up downloading, even if you never see the film) that will deliver the feeling that the whole film is meant to, and also remind Crowe’s longtime fans of just why they love his movies in the first place. If only those moments outweighed the times in the film when things just don’t resonate the way you know Crowe intended, the way they perhaps resonated in his head as he was writing or directing the scene.

What a film that might have been.

Aloha
Starring Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, and Alec Baldwin. Directed by Cameron Crowe.
Running Time: 105 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some language including suggestive comments.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.