The phrase “Aloha” carries several different meanings in Hawaiian culture, from “affection” and “peace” to “mercy” or “compassion.” Natives of the island state frequently use the term to say both hello and goodbye. I wonder if “Aloha” could also be translated as “soul-crushing disappointment,” because that would help explain why Cameron Crowe chose it as the title of his latest misfire.
Aloha marks the end of an era. This officially is the last time I will enter into a new Cameron Crowe movie with any hope of experiencing the quirky, insightful observations he once made about our everyday relationships. It isn’t on screen in Aloha, and it hasn’t been on screen since Almost Famous back in 2000. And that breaks my heart, because Crowe, in his prime, was marvelous. His screenplays attacked complicated but relatable emotional problems with the whimsy of someone who had experienced life. Crowe knew what we were going through at our jobs, with our families and in our love lives, and he was telling us – through vividly flawed characters – how he came out on the other side. We looked at rock stars, professional athletes and high-school valedictorians, and saw ourselves. Nowadays, Crowe chases that same high, but he’s clunkily hammering down on familiar emotional notes, praying he'll somehow strike a chord.
Aloha doesn’t make sense. Characters behave as if they’re occupying different movies, and large sequences fail to connect. Admittedly, Aloha gets off to a very rocky start, and while the story eventually shimmies into focus – or, as close to “in focus” as it’s ever going to get – you spend too much of the run time trying to decipher exactly what is going on between the primary characters. Fundamentally, the movie is broken, and it’s easy to spot some of the places where Crowe tried to patch a story together. But he’s constructing a home on a foundation of sand – literally, and spiritually – and Aloha crumbles, quickly.
Bradley Cooper plays Crowe’s prototypical male lead; a struggling and overwhelmed but impossibly handsome dude who once experienced success on both a personal and professional level, but has since been knocked back on his ass. Cooper’s character, Brian, is a defense contractor summoned back to Hawaii to oversee the traditional blessing of a pedestrian gate – part of an elaborate scheme hatched by billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray), who’s looking to get his own satellite into the orbit above Hawaii. Yes, there is a Bond-villain plot in the latest Cameron Crowe movie, except it’s played hopelessly straight, and feels as out-of-place as a Transformer in a Woody Allen comedy. As you might expect, Brian comes with his own stratosphere of emotional problems, from the ex-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) he stranded in Hawaii more than a decade earlier to the spunky new gal, Ng (Emma Stone), who is assigned by the military to “babysit” him during his current mission.
In the weeks leading up to its release, Aloha was criticized for its perceived lack of attention to Hawaii and its unique culture. In reality, quite the opposite ends up being true. Here is a movie so enamored with Hawaiian folklore and mythology, it eventually gets lost in a sacred, hokey dialogue that clouds the film’s intentions. And it’s also here that Crowe completely abandons the talented Emma Stone, saddling her with a role that needs to serve so many masters, but who never becomes a complete person, herself. Ng – her actual name – is a career military pilot who’s so gifted, she has risen the ranks with incredible speed. In another scene, she’s an expert in Hawaiian lore. (There’s a running joke about Ng being 1/8th Hawaiian, though like the film, this gag goes nowhere.) Later, she’s the dancing muse who somehow charms Murray’s eccentric billionaire in an awkwardly-staged flirt. And, eventually, she has to be the manic pixie dreamgirl who inspires Bradley Cooper to abandon his primary mission and reclaim his soul. Stone behaves like she’s in four different movies, though it’s Crowe’s wreckless plotting that has her pinwheeling from one ludicrous scenario to the next. She also spits out the most hackneyed rom-com cliché speak along the way. “You lost your signal,” she tells Cooper. “You are lost.” In case we couldn’t figure it out on our own.
This isn’t the review that I wanted to file. Cameron Crowe, to me, was one of the last few storytellers I still held in a certain regard, hoping beyond hope that he’d return to the form that birthed Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, Say Anything… and, yes, even Singles. But Aloha isn’t half the movie that those films are, and I hated having to come to terms with that reality as this shambling mess of melodrama bumbled along. It’s not a total disaster. I particularly enjoyed the work Rachel McAdams did in her half-baked subplot, which involved a mysterious pregnancy and a spouse (John Krasinski) who communicates without speaking. Seriously. That’s a thing. But Aloha doesn’t earn any of the emotions to which it strives. And when Stone uttered the insipid line, “You sold your soul so many times, no one’s buying anymore,” I officially bid aloha to both this film, and to Cameron Crowe’s future as a filmmaker I wanted to follow.