For context’s sake, the new Cameron Crowe film Aloha is a tick up from the dregs of Elizabethtown and a tick down from We Bought a Zoo. The Media Action Network for Asian-Americans calls it a “whitewashed” version of Hawaii, a state that is roughly 30 percent Caucasian in real life and, as Aloha presents it, roughly 97 percent in fake life. Same old Hollywood ethnographic story. And yet the recent Alexander Payne picture The Descendants, likewise set in Hawaii, made hash of similar objections, simply by being sharp and witty and astute about its chosen characters.
Despite a blue-chip cast, Aloha is just frustrating. It can barely tell its story straight, and Crowe’s attempt to get back to the days of Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous is bittersweet in ways unrelated to the narrative’s seriocomic vein.
Private military contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), with a checkered resume, returns to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu. In his new job, he works for an all-powerful billionaire (Bill Murray) partnering with the U.S. military to send up his own personal rocket for reasons the film gradually reveals.
There’s a triangular romance afoot. Gilcrest’s ex (Rachel McAdams) is now married to a taciturn Air Force pilot (John Krasinski). Yet they still have that thing they had before Gilcrest messed up and closed down emotionally, which is what men do—even in a Cameron Crowe movie, which never lacks for florid, gassy, showoff-y monologues. Emma Stone plays Gilcrest’s tightly wound handler, a fighter pilot who retains the idealism Gilcrest once had.
The first encounter among Cooper, McAdams and Stone is so awkward and unsettled that it becomes the movie’s own albatross. There are some moments, most of them thanks to McAdams. She can make truth out of contrivance, often nonverbally, dramatizing contradictory impulses within a single moment. I found myself leaning into a kitchen scene between McAdams and Cooper; in the space of a few seconds, the actress activates her character’s full array of concerns and regrets and conflicted feelings.
Elsewhere, either the plot obstacles are phony or the characters accomplish too little. Danny McBride plays an officer whose only trait is a penchant for gesticulating, nervously. Nobody ever says anything as prosaic as “hello” or “what’s up?” in a Crowe movie; they enter the frame and start monologuing, dropping references to Coachella music festival even when they make little sense coming from whoever’s doing the referencing.
One of these movies, Crowe will recapture what he gave us in Jerry Maguire, still his best film: verbosity coupled with humanity. Plus better jokes to go with the moralizing.
Aloha (PG-13): ★★✩✩✩