Aloha is the story of a defense contractor (Bradley Cooper) working for a billionaire (Bill Murray) who dispatches him to Hawaii where he runs into an ex-lover (Rachel McAdams) and meets and gradually falls for an Air Force pilot (Emma Stone). It was supposed to come out at Christmas but got pushed back to the summer, a non-traditional period for romantic comedies. The Sony hack revealed the delay was because no one at the studio liked the movie, then-boss Amy Pascal venting in one email, “I’m never starting a movie again when the script is ridiculous. I don’t care how much I love the director and the actors. It never … Not even once … ever works.” Then in the week leading up to the release of Aloha the Media Action Network for Asian Americans accused the film of “white-washing,” sight unseen. Shortly thereafter, critics tore into the film, Hitflix describing the central romance between Cooper and Stone as coming off more like he’s like a vampire feeding off of her youth. Not surprisingly, it tanked at the box office, and among those people who actually saw it very few seem to jumping up and down to defend Cameron Crowe’s poor, beleaguered comedy. Well, to paraphrase Todd Vanderwerff, I like everything about Aloha but the movie.
1) It’s a new Cameron Crowe movie
Cameron Crowe is the man responsible for classic dramedies Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous. His career has been derailed by the toxic word of mouth on his last two, Elizabethtown and We Bought a Zoo, and Elizabethtown even inadvertently inspired the creation of the phrase “manic pixie dream girl” in Nathan Rabin‘s infamous essay which he now regrets. Since Zoo, Crowe’s made several music documentaries, including Pearl Jam Twenty, and shifted to making an upcoming Showtime TV show, Roadies. By virtue of his body of work, I will always be interested to see what he does next. His style of mid-budget feature film is the types studios don’t want to make anymore (as I discussed extensively in my review of Take Care), not that he’s ever really had an easy time working in the studio system. As he recently told FilmSchoolRejects, “What we always used to hear from the marketing department was, ‘Oh man, if you had some stars, we’d know how to sell it. It’s really hard with a movie like this, because it’s not a big story and the world doesn’t blowup.’ Now we have Aloha, with a bunch of stars in it, and we hear, ‘Well, it’s a tough movie to sell, because it’s about people and relationships. We do have stars, yes? Yes, we do have stars, but it’s not about an earthquake.’ You’re always hearing some version of, like, ‘Where does this movie fit in?’”
Not surprisingly, Aloha was stuck in development hell for years, almost starring Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon at one point.
2) It was filmed in Hawaii
As many have noted, Crowe and his cinematographer regrettably fail to take full advantage of the inherent beauty of the film’s setting, but they do make it feel more lived in, aiming for a version of paradise which is also somewhere where people lead normal lives. They did film it entirely in Hawaii, adding some authenticity to the visuals while also helping to stimulate the local economy. Per Crowe’s FSR’s interview, “Even though we didn’t spend a lot of money on Aloha, everyone worked for a really cut down price, and we were able to cut good deals to shoot in Hawaii and benefit the film community and local culture there, by giving people a lot of jobs.” According to Variety, the total budget was a modest $37 million with Sony splitting the cost with Regency Enterprises, LStar Capital and RatPac Entertainment.
3) It tries to present a complex view of Hawaii’s culture rather than give it the flyover tourist treatment.
A great many have taken extreme offense to Aloha‘s depiction of Hawaii’s population, which appears to mostly break down into white people living upper middle-class lives in connection to their military jobs and natives living in poverty in the mountains, lacking basic cell phone service. However, Cameron Crowe’s intentions were admirable, per FSR, “There’s stereotype of the tourist with the drink and the umbrella and then there’s the truth, which is: the native Hawaiian community who’s still reeling from the country being stolen. Then there are the later people that have come to live there that are protective of it. Then there’s the military, who are there to protect our asset – the closest body of land we have to China. If there’s an outbreak of war or whatever, it flows through Hawaii. Paradise has many levels.” The plot attempts to highlight this divide by exploring how the resource-strapped military could be used to again screw over the natives through an influx of cash from wealthy private citizens with duplicitous intentions. That’s an interesting idea, even if the film rather mucks it up.
4) The Wedding Crashers Reunion of Bradley Cooper & Rachel McAdams
Cooper was a passable jerk in Wedding Crashers, memorable cad in The Hangover, surprisingly adept leading man in Silver Linings Playbook, hilarious voice actor for Guardians of the Galaxy and real life superhero in American Sniper. He is beyond charming in interviews, be it in a humble and thoughtful chat with Terry Gross for NPR’s Fresh Air or a slightly tipzy appearance on The Graham Norton Show. Usually, if he’s in a movie I am at least open to the idea of seeing it at some point. In Aloha, his character, Brian Gilcrest, is awkwardly torn between being a cuckold and a more straight-forward version of guy struggling to find himself, ala so many Crowe protagonists. However, Cooper sneaks in moments of genuine charm and emotion throughout. Sadly, Rachel McAdams as Tracy feels like a character limping around on one leg because some crucial scenes were left on the cutting room floor. Really, in general, the whole film feels a bit like it was at one point an ensemble drama that then morphed into a story strictly about Gilcrest. In retrospect, Crowe would have been better off either running with Stone or McAdams, not both, make it either the story of a man falling in love or the story of a man re-connecting with an old flame.
Despite all that, there is still a bit of jolt of energy from seeing Cooper and McAdams together again, thinking back to when she was just emerging, Owen Wilson was the leading man of the moment and Bradley Cooper was someone we’d never heard of before in Wedding Crashers.
5) The entire cast, really
I like Emma Stone, who plays Allison Ng, a spunky fighter pilot assigned to be Gilcrest’s military escort during his 5-day stay. In fact, I like just about everyone in this cast, e.g., Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Alec Baldwin and Danny McBride, although that it no way means I’ve liked everything they’ve ever done. In fact, I don’t actually like all of their performances in this very film. Alec Baldwin, in particular, just yells all the time. His military character might as well have been called Colonel Asshole. Still, the casting people did their job, with one glaring mistake. Freckle-faced Emma Stone should not have been cast to play a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian, half-Swedish fighter pilot. The Hawaiian heritage is important to Allison’s sympathy for the Hawaiian natives and ability to connect with them, but once they cast Stone the role should have been re-written to make her someone who merely grew up in Hawaii but has no actual Hawaiian blood in her. Either that or they needed to cast someone who looks the part. Countless think pieces, many from people who are actually mixed-race, have really torn into Aloha for this oversight.
There is also a definite age gap, with 25-year-old Stone playing love interest to 40-year-old Cooper, part of an on-going trend of several prominent under-30 actresses of the moment (Stone, Johansson, Lawrence) routinely paired with men twice their age. However, I was little more aware of the age gap in Aloha than I was in the 16-years separating Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, partially because I usually forget how old Cooper is.
6) It subverts rom-com conventions by not reverting to a love triangle
Gilcrest and Tracy (McAdams) haven’t seen each other in over a decade, and she’s since married an Air Force pilot (a strong, silent type played by Krasinski) and had two kids. In the standard rom-com, this would turn into a love triangle in which the third wheel is obnoxious or unfaithful. Instead, Krasinski’s chief fault is that he is not much of a talker, partially due to his preference to not discuss his work at home. In fact, a true love triangle never really breaks out at all, the conflict actually acting as a Trojan horse for a surprising subplot involving McAdams’ 12-year-old daughter Gracie (Danielle Rose Russell).
7) The final scene packs a surprising emotional punch
The final scene is obviously too spoiler-y to discuss in detail, but it is the payoff of the subplot and is genuinely emotionally affecting.
8) The soundtrack features plenty of interesting Hawaiian music which is completely new to me
At this point, you almost roll your eyes a little when you’re watching a Cameron Crowe movie in which some scene is punctuated by classic rock. In Aloha’s case, that role is filled early on by The Who and The Rolling Stones, and throughout the film he generally uses a little more music than is necessary. However, he is an amazing DJ, and the majority of the music in Aloha is by Hawaiian artists I’d never heard of before. It all makes for pleasant background music.
9) A dance scene between Emma Stone and Bill Murray has left me obsessed with Hall & Oates
Halfway into the story, the four principal players – Cooper, Stone, McAdams, Krasinski – end up at a Christmas/New Year’s Party, which Bill Murray’s character crashes. He has an eccentric dance with Stone (Zombieland reunion, people!), the rest of the dancefloor parting to cheer them on. Cooper watches from afar, his grin slowly fading as he contemplates the personal politics at play, the seductive Hall & Oates song in the background pining, “I will do anything that you want me to/I’ll do almost anything that you want me to/But I can’t go for that.” It speaks both to the developing central romance as well as to the forthcoming conflict of ideals. More importantly, it’s a damn amazing song, “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” which I had somehow never heard before. Now I can’t stop listening to it, and I’m on a huge Hall & Oates kick. Thanks Spotify! And thanks Aloha!
10) Sometimes, you just want to say “screw the reviews” and go see a movie starring a bunch of actors you like and enjoy what’s on screen despite all of its flaws
Aloha has been called the new Gigli or a repeat of Elizabethtown. CinemaAxis just dropped the hammer on it, calling it not just Crowe’s worst film but also one of the worst films of the entire year, “It is hokey, sappy, and just downright insulting to anyone that has a brain.” However, sometimes you just want to say “screw the reviews” and go see a movie starring a bunch of actors you like and enjoy what’s on screen despite all of its flaws, even if it is lifted at times by little more than the charisma of the performers.
So, I like what Aloha is trying to do, the way it sounds, what it represents as a mid-budget film, the people they cast, and the way the story ends. Plus, I’ve always liked Cameron Crowe, not just for his films but also because he’s a fellow Pearl Jam fanatic, putting a young Eddie Vedder into Singles, seating him across from a sulking Matt Dillon and giving him the classic goofy line “a compliment for us is a compliment for you.”
But Aloha is, sadly, a mess. There’s a running joke through half of the film that everyone assumes Cooper’s character knows everything about Murray’s privately funded program to launch a satellite above Hawaii, causing McBride’s military figure to jokingly lament, “He knows everything, and nobody tells me anything.” Of course, it is the audience watching Aloha who feels as if they aren’t being told anything about any of this because crucial bits of exposition in the film either never happen or fly by too fast.
This is apparent from the get-go when we start off with an opening voice-over from Cooper which fails to help us fully understand how his past as an idealistic engineer resulted in him injuring his leg in Afghanistan (leaving him with a noticeable limp for the rest of his life) and working as a contractor. As hilariously broken down by Drew at Hitfix, Gilcrest is “a military officer who was injured and who now does… something. He works in some capacity for a billionaire named Carson Welch (Bill Murray) who is famous for… something. Brian arrives in Hawaii, tasked with getting Dennis Bumpy Kanahele to sign off on… something. And he is assigned Allison Ng, a part-Hawaiian fighter pilot who is told to stick close to him to do… something. If all of that sounds vague, it’s because I literally do not understand large chunks of this movie. I do not understand what anyone is doing. I do not understand why they are doing it.”
Some of that simply comes down to how closely you pay attention to the film, as some of Drew’s “somethings” are clearly explained, but I completely relate to his level of confusion, particularly during the first quarter of the film. I am still fuzzy on how exactly Gilcrest’s need to attain a blessing from native Hawaiians for some gate eventually connected to a billionaire launching a satellite without their knowledge, my confusion mirroring what Amy Pascal learned from the early test screenings, “The satellite makes no sense. The gate makes no sense.”
Of course, the plot doesn’t ultimately matter. Gilcrest is back in Hawaii simply because he needs to meet and fall in love with Allison but not before he comes to terms with his past relationship with Tracy. At some point along the way, he sold his soul, and the new girl in his life will help him become a better person but not before they have a falling out and he makes a huge sacrifice followed by a grand romantic speech. The specific triggers for those familiar Jerry Maguire-esque plot points don’t necessarily matter if you’re willing to go along with everything and enjoy the actors together. Unfortunately, their chemistry can’t cover everything.
RottenTomatoes Current Consensus: 18% – “Meandering and insubstantial, Aloha finds writer-director Cameron Crowe at his most sentimental and least compelling.”