With a cast that includes Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Alec Baldwin, Bill Murray, John Krasinski and Danny McBride, Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha,” which opens Friday, has a lot of promise. But Crowe’s journey to the islands of Hawaii ends up a misstep that leaves the audience feeling adrift.
In “Aloha,” disgraced defense contractor Brian Gilcrest (Cooper) returns to his native Hawaii for a second chance – overseeing the launch of a military satellite financed by rogue businessman and Gilcrest's former boss Carson Welch (Murray). Things get complicated as his homecoming brings a reunion with Tracy (McAdams), his now-married ex, and a budding romance with Capt. Allison Ng (Stone), the Air Force pilot tasked by the Army with keeping Gilcrest in line. Plus, Brian has an old friend in town (McBride), a volatile commanding officer on his case (Baldwin), and the Nation of Hawaii – a sovereign village of Hawaiian natives – impeding the satellite’s progress.
If that sounds like too much going on for one movie, that is because it is! “Aloha” struggles to figure out what story it wants to tell most, clumsily jumping from reconciliation – Brian and Tracy’s unresolved past – to redemption – in the form of a relationship with Ng – to a sloppy cautionary tale about the militarization of space and respect for nature.
As a result, the movie tries to cover more emotional ground than each scene can manageably handle, with the film’s big-name actors seemingly choking on the overly theatrical, on-the-nose dialogue, despite their best efforts. Cameron Crowe fans are not strangers to clichés and contrivances. In fact, the writer-director has a history of bringing a warmth and earnestness to his stories that makes his blunders easy to forgive. Here, though, Crowe strains against his own limitations, ending up somewhere much closer to – or perhaps worse than – “We Bought a Zoo” and “Elizabethtown” than “Almost Famous” or “Say Anything.”
The film is strongest in scenes shared between Cooper’s Gilcrest and McAdams’ Tracy – a refreshingly sexual tension-free exploration of the their shared past that is the closest “Aloha” comes to good chemistry between its leads. But Crowe makes that relationship second fiddle to the forced romance between Gilcrest and Ng. Stone is charming as Ng, but not given enough time to flesh out a fully developed character. The same can be said of most of the supporting cast, from Baldwin to Murray.
When the movie again shifts its priorities to Gilcrest’s far-fetched defense of Hawaii’s natural harmony, featuring an eyeroll-inducing sample of the end of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” things get laughable.
“Aloha” is not the first high-profile film to be enamored with Hawaii. “The Descendants,” a best picture Oscar nominee in 2012, also concerned itself with the personal lives of characters burdened by the responsibility of preserving the culture and natural beauty of the islands. However, while the characters in Alexander Payne’s film feel organically shaped by their home – with accurate depictions of native residents and subtle nods to culture filling the atmosphere of the film – Crowe’s characters feel exactly like the invaders the natives in “Aloha” accuse them of being. Hawaiian music is jarringly jammed into scenes and portentous dialogue prevents the gorgeous setting from speaking for itself.
Crowe has described “Aloha” as a love letter to Hawaii, but his affection seems misplaced. Thus, when he calls on his characters to be the guardians of the islands in his film, it feels disingenuous, like a tourist acting as the guide.
“Aloha” is already under fire in Hawaii, with natives accusing the film of wrongly appropriating the sacred phrase for the movie’s title and whitewashing its depiction of the multiracial state with its casting. Even if those faults were defensible, “Aloha” is not strong enough to be worth the argument.
Watch the trailer for "Aloha" below: