If you were to show me “Aloha” with no credits on the film, my reaction would remain just as complicated as it is now, but I'd say, “There are a few moments here that are promising, and I feel like this filmmaker might put it together at some point. Not this film, probably not the next one, but at some point.” It is, frankly, astonishing to me that “Aloha” is the eighth film in someone's directing career, not the first.
When they released the trailer for “Aloha,” I was flabbergasted by it. It looked like a beat-for-beat remake of “Elizabethtown,” which seemed like very odd choice considering the response to that film. Now that I've seen it, the crazy part is that they had to go out of their way to cut the trailer like that, since “Aloha” is not structured the same way as “Elizabethtown.” Basically, Sony decided that it was better to advertise this as a loose remake of the film that derailed Crowe's career than to advertise the film as what it actually is.
That pretty much says it all.
There are various subjects that seem to confound filmmakers whenever they set out to capture them on film, and one of the rocks that filmmakers seem to repeatedly crash against is Hawaii. I've learned that there are two types of people in the world: people who are drawn to Hawaii on an almost chemical level, and people who are annoyed by the entire subject. I was bitten by the bug myself, but I don't feel the need to be evangelical about it. Basically, I just like going there. It's beautiful, and it is one of only two places on Earth where I've felt completely at peace. But I can't imagine trying to capture the appeal of the place on film. It's more complicated than just blue sky and white beaches and the ocean.
Crowe's film is crippled from frame one, and there is something off about the editing style that almost feels like they just didn't have enough options or enough takes or enough footage. It almost feels like he lopped off a first act, dropping us right into the story of Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), a former 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 (Emma Stone), 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. And I do not understand the stakes involved, whether they do or don't accomplish their goals. These are basic things, and yet when the film reaches its big ethical breaking point near the start of act three and Bradley Cooper's character has to decide if he's going to do his job and break Emma Stone's heart, his deciding moment of “I'll do it!” is rendered pointless because I had no idea what it was he was going to do. Even once he does it, I don't know what it is he's done. I was watching the film. I was looking at the screen. I heard everything the characters said. And yet… no idea. Zero. I am baffled.
There's a subplot here about Brian running into his ex-girlfriend Tracy (RacheL McAdams), who is now married to Woody (John Krasinski), a non-verbal pilot who is threatened because he knows how much Brian once meant to Tracy. There may also be a secret involving Grace (Danielle Rose Russell), the 12 year old daughter that Tracy had about a year after breaking up with Brian. And, as with the rest of the film, I'm really torn, because there is a scene at the end of the movie that carries more genuine emotional charge than everything else in the film, and in that moment, I can see the movie “Aloha” could have been. This subplot contains maybe the film's best moments, but it is just as uneven and ill-considered as the rest of the film. The entire thing is handled in just a few scenes, and it's too much too fast. It's resolved as soon as its introduced, and it never rings true. If you're going to show a marriage in free-fall and ask us to empathize with one partner who turns to an old lover, you need to earn that. It's a pretty big emotional ask, and while Cooper and McAdams are certainly appealing, the characters are too thin, too barely-there to really ring true.
I'm baffled by so much of this movie. Danny McBride plays a character who everyone calls Fingers because… brace yourself… he moves his fingers a lot. And that's it. Bill Murray has finally given a forgettable performance, something I thought was impossible. And Alec Baldwin shows up as General Unmotivated Asshole to yell in a few scenes for no discernible reason. And in moment after moment, there are tiny grace notes that are interesting, but none of them add up to whole scenes that work. Cooper is stranded playing a character who is so poorly defined that I can't tell you if what he does from scene to scene is consistent because I have no idea who he is or what he's doing.
Then there's Emma Stone. Poor Emma Stone. Imagine being so effervescent that directors and writers stop even trying the moment you're cast. “What? We've got Emma Stone? Well, then, no need to write anything. She's charming.” She plays an unplayable character here, a Manic Pixie Dream Fighter Pilot, and the weird combination of hard-nosed military and silly romantic that Crowe tries to create simply doesn't gel. She tries to bring her scenes to life, but they are so patently false that she just keeps slamming into the text like it's a wall. This is a common problem for her. The “Spider-Man” movies feature entire scenes where she never delivers any real line of dialogue, but her own personality is enough to fool you into thinking you just saw a scene involving a character. “Aloha” leans on the adorable side of her personality real hard, and sure enough, she is adorable. But in so many ways, I find this disrespectful to both the audience and the actor. She is a compelling performer, so write something compelling for her. And for Stone, these roles are becoming a trap. It makes every older white writer/director feel like a creep, watching them make these movies where the entire point seems to be “Scamper around in front of my camera, you adorable thing, so the world can see you through my eyes.” Ick. Ick. Ick. Ick. I can buy McAdams and Cooper as age-appropriate, but Stone feels like she is so much younger than Cooper that he just comes off as a sad, broken old man who is attracted to her youth like a vampire, not because of who she is as a person.
Finally, while I admire many of the films that Eric Gautier has shot, I would wager that this may be the most visually unappealing version of Hawaii ever captured. The film wants to have this sort of laid-back feeling, unhurried in the way that life feels unhurried in Hawaii, but if you can't capture the natural beauty of the state in a way that is persuasive, you have failed at making a movie about Hawaii. How can this be the same guy who shot “Into The Wild” or “Summer Hours” or “The Motorcycle Diaries”? Those movies are so good at evoking a time and a place, and this movie fails at it utterly.
2015 has featured at least three movies so far that are near-total whiffs by enormously talented guys, and in each case, it is depressing writing these reviews. It's depressing because I genuinely want to like each of these films. It's depressing because I can only assume the filmmakers will read these reviews and that will be the end of any ongoing conversation. And it's depressing because these are reliable artists who appear to be almost totally flummoxed by the current studio system and their places in it. Like “blackhat,” this film feels like someone doing a parody of a Cameron Crowe film, not an actual Cameron Crowe film, and I'm guessing there's something in that to be pulled out and studied. I'm sure that, like “blackhat” and “Tomorrowland,” there will be Crowe fans who are determined to love this movie and they will, but as someone who has always found things to like in Crowe's films, I am crushed by how much I did not like “Aloha.” Whimsy's hard, honestly motivated romance is harder, and when you get both of those things wrong in the same movie, the result is almost too much to take.
“Aloha” is in theaters tomorrow.