When a brief sonic burp of a microphone being taken in hand echoed through the darkened hall that hosted this past Tuesday’s All-Media screening of Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha,” the audience looked up from their texting and then did a double take to see the director himself addressing them. Briefly, calmly, he referenced the public perceptions that have been snowballing since the Sony hack by North Koreans revealed an assessment by (soon-to-be-banished) Amy Pascal that an early cut she saw “Never…not even once…ever works.”
While Pascal is known (not wrongly, except perhaps in this film’s case) as a keen sponsor of various James Brooks-ian auteur films that snuck into her studio’s slate underneath the would-be blockbusters, she (and co-producing frenemy Scott Rudin) were all over Wikileaks pounding their foreheads (and each other’s) in anguish over the film. Crowe cited this toxic buzz—“Some of it private, some of it pubic, some of it private that became public”—to the crowd’s knowing amusement, and added that never did the movie cease to be anything more than a love letter to the place it was shot.
He added that he was proud of it and “I hope you enjoy spending a little time in Hawaii…”
And guess what—at least intermittently, based on occasional volleys of appreciative laughter and the almost inevitably tepid applause of a crowd largely composed of journos, they largely did.
So, once the lights went all the way down on Tuesday, what did I like about this film?
1. I liked the why-the-hell-not, camera-spinning DePalma-esque shot just moments in when our hero Bradley Cooper stands between the deliciously candid-eyed Rachel McAdams and the winningly over-caffeinated kewpie doll (surely, we feel, somebody’s gonna kiss that girl in this movie!) which is Emma Stone’s character. (Cooper is both a limping wreck and charismatic rogue in a nicely pitched performance.)
2. I liked Danny McBride’s tic-y, amoral, goofball Air Force colonel known as Fingers. Crowe obviously told him to have fun, so we do.
3. I liked Bill Murray’s corrupt tech-rich moneybags guy, a cruel, brainy, louche, charming viper and a Mephistophelean plot engine.
4. I liked Alec Baldwin’s possessed general, even as he eats scenery, spits it back out, then rallies and hoovers it all up again.
5. I liked Bill Camp’s corn-syrupy aide to Murray, the enabling string-puller who would not be out of place in Crowe touchstone “The Apartment.” And of course John Krasinski, as the studly if remote man McAdams has settled on, whose pointedly wordless scene with Cooper plays so well in the trailer and has a later recall that will greatly please any theater crowd that’s not worried about…with respect…the sacred bones that they probably sandal-slapped across on their last Hawaiian vacation.
That’s a pretty deep comic/dramatic bench, and in deploying these worthies Crowe is still squarely in a romantic comedy tradition that he has thoroughly ingested. And for those who want a little liberal red meat with their meal, the predicament that Murray’s almost Bond-ian villain sets spinning, and in which Cooper becomes hideously entangled, carries some pointed messages about an imaginable militarization of space by the private sector. (This not entirely coherent subplot also posits an imaginable Chinese threat in space.) If the film’s climactic passage skitters dangerously close to a screwball farce somewhere in there, so be it—Crowe has an emotional wrap-up ready for you that might just heat you up behind the eyes.
It should be noted that I’m a Team Crowe guy. Anyone who worked at Rolling Stone through various eras starting from the 70s when his all-access stories on Led Zep (etc.) dominated, through the days when he was becoming a Hollywood big shot yet eschewed all pretense and would spread good will and take the incumbent RS writers out for beers, is likely to feel the same.
More importantly, films like “Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous” (yep, not just for those who lived it) and “Say Anything” won over a generation with their protagonists’ drolly-worded career and romance woes. (Many casual fans may yet assume that “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” directed by Amy Heckerling from Crowe’s autobiographical script, was directed by him.) As the NY Times’ A.O. Scott puts it in his hand-wringing “Aloha” review, “Let me say right up front that I will always root for Cameron Crowe.”
Heard ya. Hell, I even appeared in “Vanilla Sky” in a haz-mat suit lowering a bundle meant to be Tom Cruise into a vat of liquid nitrogen or some such–so let the 85 percent of pro and amateur “Aloha” (let’s just say it) haters go ahead and FedEx me the anthrax.
Following the Tuesday screening, the cyber universe generally obeyed the Sony Pictures embargo on posting about the film until mid-Thursday, less than 24 hours before the first public unspoolings. And then with much clatter and even wrath, the critical roof fell in.
Or did it?
Yes, an early Rotten Tomatoes tally was a harsh 8% positive among top critics, 11% overall, and although those tallies would upgrade a bit to 19 and 21, overall those who didn’t put the boot in on aesthetic grounds (“The plot is a hash when it’s not a drag,” also wrote Scott, “its rhythms are rushed and pokey…”) picked up on the increasingly loud drumbeat spawned by various critiques issued by native Islanders that here, once again, as one U. of Hawaii professor said, “Hawaii is the verdant background for white fantasies.”
Those fantasists, probably like most of us happy visitors to the sanitized Hawaii that seldom bothered their vacation Mai Tai sessions in the past, may be the crowd that accorded the movie a 96 percent ‘want to see’ rating alongside the critical raspberry.
And yet the movie is suffused with stabs at raised consciousness about island origins. Perhaps balancing the insistence that Emma Stone’s rather Nordic-looking visage was that of someone who’s one-quarter Hawaiian is the presence of local activist (and King Kamehameha descendant) Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele. He’s the man for ethnic pride, and he’s all in. Is it cynical to portray his group as agreeing to move sacred bones in exchange for beefed-up cell phone bars and deeded-over government lands? Maybe, but I was told on the Hawaii set by the makers of the 2003 “Tears of the Sun” that a similarly vigorous money-based negotiation happened when they sought to shoot scenes in which a native preserve stood in for an African setting.
That’s a battle I’ll leave to others. If the complainants tire of it, they can go after, say “50 First Dates,” “Godzilla” or even –while we’re talking auteurs who must now right many decades of ethnic wrongs—Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants.”
So, what of the “entertainment” part? With closer scrutiny of nominally negative reviews we come to find those on the fringes of the negative group shed some love on the film.
Will Mark Olsen’s Los Angeles Times review be judged a tomato or a splat?: “I can even say that I had a good time…. it’s a loose, leisurely hangout movie, funny and sprawling and full of eccentric, interesting folks.” (Is Amy Pascal gritting her teeth when she reads that?) Olsen adds: “Best to see ‘Aloha’ as a messy, imperfect movie about messy, imperfect people, a film of moments and fleeting flashes that may not entirely add up but that are delightful on their own.” Olsen also notes “a keenly self-aware running joke that the pale blond so frequently extols herself as one-quarter Hawaiian.”
“McAdams, meanwhile, plays likely the strongest, most rounded female character Crowe has ever written, a joy to watch. Now perceived as struggling and damaged, ‘Aloha’ deserves better than all that. Even with its off-balance, overstuffed storytelling, the film maintains a charm and energy that never flags, with brisk pacing and generally engaging performances from its deep-bench cast.”
At the risk of scissoring up some ambivalent review fare into studio-friendly quotes, one has to let other reviewers step in to make their points:
Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal offered only “one hand clapping,” but was bewitched by Stone: “Allison is one-quarter Hawaiian and, in Ms. Stone’s portrayal, 100% enchanting, whether she’s silent, quiet or verbal.”
Grantland’s Wesley Morris found McAdams “never lovelier, more instinctive or more present,” and concluded of the film “None of this `works’. But it usually worked on me…there’s nobody’s mess I’d rather be standing in.”
The less mainstream web sites stood in for the audience that will certainly find the film–though probably not to quite make it turn a profit.
Said Metro’s Matt Prigge: “It’s incoherent as narrative but every scene is great. OK, not every scene is great, per se, but every scene is alive and often weird…a delightful mess… he makes a renewed case for himself as a singular artist. This is a movie, for better or worse, but generally for better, with a real voice.”
Bullz-Eye’s Jack Giroux: “A heartfelt, funny and honest, albeit a little messy, romantic comedy…’Aloha’ may be Cameron Crowe’s most Billy Wilder-esque film to date.”
Indeed, even casual cineastes will see Crowe’s Hollywood spirit animal Billy Wilder in it, and Crowe has cited Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka,” with its co-authored Wilder script, as helping inspire this kindred story of an occluded personality flowering.
The Miami Herald ‘s Rene Rodriguez set the stage for the so-uncool-they’re-cool following even some of the director’s more slapped-around films have found: “An imperfect film littered with flaws, but sometimes those movies can be the most interesting ones. The doors to the ‘Aloha cult fan club are officially open.”
Perhaps the most ringing evocation of what works in “Aloha” came from flyover country, in The Minneapolis Tribune’s Colin Covert’s initially lonely, rather warm review. Savvy to the centrality of the soundtrack to Crowe features, he called it “an original mixtape of a movie, a dozen tight tracks of turbulent brilliance,” and found it an “emotionally exposed, ironic ramble.”
Well then. If a friend of mine who was planning to skip this movie because of the rumors and disses and the rather zealous piling on asks if he or she should see it, I’m going to say, “Yes, see it. Yes, do.” And you can still go see ‘Fury Road’ in all its insane clinical majesty a few weeks from now. But if you don’t dare yourself to see “Aloha,” just maybe, you know, the North Koreans win. So, if I may, aloha.