It’s weird feeling empty after watching a Cameron Crowe film. His name alone conjures up sensations of joy and excitement — exuberance, even! For over three decades, he’s filled theaters worldwide with laughter and tears and good vibes, from the rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy of Fast Times at Ridgemont High to the heart-on-your-boombox iconography of Say Anything… to the time-traveling wisdom of Almost Famous. He sold Tom Cruise to cynical audiences (twice!), he made Matt Dillon funny, and he gave Eric Stoltz a handful of diminutive cameos to add to his cultish resume. And while his last couple of efforts — namely Elizabethtown and We Bought a Zoo — have been criticized or maligned, at least they came from a special place in Crowe’s soul.
That’s not the case for Aloha, his latest feature. Despite Eric Gautier’s dreamy scenery of Hawaii and an A-list cast that would give David O. Russell a hard-on, Crowe’s romantic comedy lacks any emotional resonance. It’s a lifeless, sloppy story with transparent plot devices clumsily disguised as quirky characters, who all have little to no chemistry together. Scenes sprint on by with breakneck pacing while rigid dialogue sweats with exposition to catch up. The film’s tone scatters and shifts in a confusing manner, unable to decide if it wants to be Jerry Maguire meets Silver Linings Playbook or Jerry Maguire meets Romancing the Stone. It’s like … we’re looking at a Cameron Crowe film. Only that’s not a Cameron Crowe film. Isn’t that weird?
Yet all of Crowe’s motifs are in action: Following some vintage Hawaiian footage, we’re quickly introduced to a good-looking man named Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), who narrates a montage that’s soundtracked by The Who‘s “I Can See for Miles”. Check. Brian’s an unhappy defense contractor on his way to Hawaii to oversee the launch of a weapons satellite, which will tip off the militarization of space. That’s fairly original, but not so fast. He’s also on the rebound career-wise. Double check. And he’s to be chaperoned by a cute Air Force pilot named Allison Ng (Emma Stone). Triple check. And it just so happens that his former lover (Rachel McAdams) lives near the base married with two precocious children. Check, check, check.
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You’d think that since so much of this is derivative of his past triumphs, the film would be able to handle itself better. But Crowe seems just as impatient as we are about the anticipated, drawn-out process of shipping his two leads so he essentially solders the two together within the film’s first 10 minutes. He then pushes the underwritten couple through an overwritten story that chaotically bundles together Hawaiian folklore, themes of fatherhood, and one disposable commentary on America’s macho imperialism. Somewhere in between, Bill Murray is supposed to be the villain, Alec Baldwin revisits his role from Elizabethtown or Along Came Polly (take your pick), and John Krasinski does this thing where he acts quiet, then jealous, then both.
What’s really telling is how the eclectic soundtrack — traditionally Crowe’s brilliant left hook — fails to elevate any of the proceedings. Midway through the film, all of the principal and corollary characters come together at a late night soiree, where everyone’s drinking and doing their thing while an underused Danny McBride spins records in the corner. Baldwin’s stodgy General Dixon humorously requests Tears for Fears‘ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and later Stone and Murray dance to Daryl Hall & John Oates‘ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)”. Two exceptional songs and the sequences are about as exciting and understated as that sentence, even though Gilcrest later confesses to Ng that it was one of the best nights he’s had in awhile. That we don’t feel what he does perfectly sums up the crisis of this film.
But not once is there an urge to empathize with anyone, and that’s partly because the film’s main protagonist, Gilcrest, lacks any pathos at all. He’s supposed to be this tortured contractor, severely injured during a stint in Afghanistan, but where’s the pain? Where’s his suffering? Whatever demons he’s supposed to be working out himself exist solely off the lips of everyone around him. Sure, we can be told he’s broken, or a loser, or even a scumbag, but that doesn’t mean anything if we don’t actually see it. Speaking of which, every other supporting character comments on how awful he looks, but to us, he still looks like People’s 2011 Sexiest Man Alive, so who the hell did he look like before the injury? James Dean? God?
A few years ago, Crowe told The Hollywood Reporter, “People are going to go where they get characters that they remember. I don’t think people are ever going to a place where they’re like, ‘I’m over stories about character and love.'” True, but audiences will get over tired formulas, wasted leads, and predictability, all tragic hallmarks of Aloha. It’s a damn shame, too, because this was supposed to be Crowe’s big, risky film — an adventure comedy in the vein of Romancing the Stone or Jewel of the Nile. That would have been a refreshing twist on his designs, or at the very least a fun time. Instead, he played it safe and delivered the hollowest film of his career, which is depressing and by and large the only feeling to draw from this. Aloha, indeed.