Back in April, I got a preview of Sony’s Summer movie slate from the PR company that handles all the press screenings in the Bay area. It began with the sentence, “Please note: We are no longer working on ALOHA.”
And that was the last I heard of Aloha. This despite it being a Cameron Crowe movie starring four Academy Award nominees (Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper, with Bill Murray and Alec Baldwin in smaller roles). No screening invite, no advertising, nothing. Word on the street was that there were advance screenings in some cities, but usually the night before the release, and embargoed until the day of. Studios will give all kinds of reasons for pulling this kind of thing, but there’s really only ever one reason: they’re ashamed of it, and they think horrible word of mouth is a foregone conclusion. Which made me wonder: what could possibly embarrass the studio that made the Growns Ups movies?
I assumed Aloha must be some schmaltzy, Elizabethtown nightmare, but that was naive. Schmaltzy rom-coms are simple, and studios like simple. They can sell simple. What they hate is something they don’t know how to sell, and sure enough, Aloha is the movie equivalent of a man in a donkey suit with a tree branch growing out of his forehead. I don’t know what the f*ck this movie is. It feels like Cameron Crowe tried to make some Pynchonesque contemporary riff on Casablanca, then either or he or the studio chickened out halfway through and tried to turn it back into Jerry Maguire. But don’t confuse Aloha with hackwork, or assume it’s your average ordinary every day turd. It’s more like a mad scientist had 10 beakers bubbling, and instead of unlocking cold fusion, he blew up his lab and melted an ear.
Aloha telegraphs its ambition in the first five minutes. Bradley Cooper’s Brian Gilcrest, flying back to Hawaii for the first time in years, finishes a friend’s sentence: “Beneath that aloha spirit?” “…Casablanca, baby.”
If Cameron Crowe had actually pulled that off, a romance set in a land of transients, double agents, sexual tension, corruption, shadowy motives, and international intrigue hidden beneath the facade of a sun-drenched, laidback paradise, Aloha could’ve been amazing. Brad Cooper even makes a reasonably plausible Bogey – a vaguely connected former government agent wounded in Afghanistan, now working as a private contractor for a billionaire (Bill Murray) trying to establish a private space company. Too bad nothing else, from Cooper’s job to the people around him, ever makes much sense.
Rachel McAdams plays the Bergman role, Cooper’s estranged ex who’s been living in Hawaii with two kids and a nearly mute, intelligence officer husband (John Krasinski, in a role that actually really works for him). Cooper’s arrival turns her world upside down (her precocious son calls Cooper “Lono,” some kind of Hawaiian mischief spirit), and she’s immediately, bizarrely forthcoming with her ex about how unhappy her marriage is. Another problem is that she seems five, maybe 10 years too young for the role. Apparently she’s 36 in real life, but looks about 28, and in the film has a 13-year-old daughter. So when her movie son asks Cooper, “Didn’t you almost marry my mom?” and he says, “Yeah, a few times,” you sit there wondering “When, when you were 14?”
The son (played by Jaeden Lieberher, a pretty great little actor saddled with a thankless sh*t role here) also asks, “Why would any guy ever break up with my mom?” as if that’s plausible question for an 11-year-old. “You stopped f*cking my mom? Dat ass tho! Seriously, bro, you some kinda f*g or what?”
And yet McAdams’ casting makes at least five times as much sense as Emma Stone’s, who’s not only too young for her role as fighter pilot Allison Ng, she’s, you know… not Asian. She’s supposed to be the daughter of a half Chinese, half Hawaiian father, and even if you accept that, there’s no real setup for her being instantly in love with Bradley Cooper, or for why her military fighter pilot character has been partnered with a private space contractor, or for what they’re supposed to be doing together. Their first task is to convince some kind of ersatz Hawaiian king to give his blessing for Cooper’s company to move the bones of the Hawaiians’ ancestors so they can build a private space launch pad. You know, a perfectly logical task for a military fighter pilot and a space physicist. They go to meet the guy, who says a lot of magical negro-esque things (magical polynegro things, in this case) like “I’m feeling a lot of mana between you two,” and “the sky’s got a lot to say tonight.”
I swear, this movie is like some bastard offspring of Casablanca, Inherent Vice, Goosebumps, and Baywatch Hawaii.
Making even less sense than Emma Stone’s instant, aggressive attraction† is Bradley Cooper’s strenuous resistance to it. Emma Stone?? Gross, bro! In the bar she tells him “You try to make ‘I’m a fighter pilot’ sound sexy.”
Hmm, you know how you could make that sound sexy? You have Emma Stone say it. Guys would push their grandmothers down stairs just to be the first to open her cockpit.
And these are problems just with the rom-com part of the movie, to say nothing of the Casablanca-by-way-of-James Bond plot it’s grafted onto, which is even stranger. The latter expects us to just take it as a matter of faith that private space exploration is inherently evil. When Bradley Cooper helps Bill Murray launch a satellite (and catch a Chinese hacker in the process – Cooper’s character is apparently a spy, a NASA-type physicist, a pilot, AND a genius coder), Emma Stone starts crying like he just buttf*cked a baby otter. There’s also a crying Indian-esque reaction shot of the Hawaiian king. They sort of explain it later, but at the time you’re left to think “Gee, these Hawaiians sure are sensitive about space trash.”
This is a movie that wants to have a billionaire industrialist trying to put nuclear weapons into space (literally) and a handsome hunk run through the proverbial airport to get the girl in the third act in the same story. And still leave room for lots of acoustic guitars and an emotional, father-daughter moment at a hula class (I swear to God).
It’s a bummer, but it’s not a piece of sh*t. I actually really want to see Cameron Crowe’s Hawaiian Casablanca movie. But that would require identifiable players with logical motives (Casablanca had Nazis, free French, French collaborators, and various colonials and refugees, with an American at the center of it), not some chemtrail-level conspiracy plot involving space nukes and Hawaiian corpse spirits. And making the romance work would require a more plausible timeline, fewer precocious children, and preferably no white people inexplicably playing Asians.
At a tight 104 minutes, it feels like Aloha left anything that could’ve explained it on the cutting room floor, then tried to tie it back together with bad clichés, hoary stereotypes, and acoustic guitar strums. My takeaway? Making movies is hard, yo.
†Incidentally, 26-year-old Emma Stone, in her last few movies, has played love interest to: 40-year-old Bradley Cooper, 45-year-old Edward Norton, 54-year-old Colin Firth, and 54-year-old Sean Penn, along with more age appropriate Andrew Garfield and Baby Goose – 31 and 34. Not to mention Jim Carrey’s half-joking YouTube proposal. What is it about her?
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.