Writer/director Cameron Crowe, he of “Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous” and the tastefully soundtracked, life-is-bittersweet-but-can-also-be-winning mien, is clearly obsessed with a feeling. Those near imperceptible and fleeting, but momentous moments of ache and longing that can only really be expressed without words. These evanescent rushes are communicated through pining glances, a crestfallen lump in the throat, the quivering bottom-lip sensation before you may laugh or cry depending on which way the wind blows in the crucial next moment. And while Crowe’s been a fine purveyor of romantic comedy poignancy with sharp and humanist insights that has helped shape a filmmaking oeuvre, his latest effort, “Aloha,” is bittersweet overkill. Familiar and unwieldy, the dramedy is one long, sustained and ultimately overwrought note of happy/sad wistfulness that loops itself into an echo of strained feedback.
Crowe is also consumed with the idea of second chances and screw-up/down-on-their-luck male protagonists—with a heart of gold buried beneath their emotional damage of course—who blow it, only to find their mojo again thanks to the great woman that believes in them (“Jerry Maguire,” “Elizabethtown,” “We Bought A Zoo” all employ this notion to varying degrees). And there’s something unfortunate in the tendencies of most of these female characters; pre-enamored with the men by their reputation and tolerating these self-obsessed jerks because they, and only they, understand, there’s an untapped potential for greatness beneath all the surface pain, resent and bitterness. And “Aloha” employs much of this male/female template dynamic.
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Having sat on this script for more than seven years, making “We Bought A Zoo” and two documentaries in the interim, the Hawaii-set “Aloha” has an air of impatience blowing through it that results in myriad moments feeling accelerated and never quite earned. To this end, the patchy movie begins with a voice-over montage that speed-reads us through the back story of protagonist Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), a former superstar military contractor who overplayed his hand in the Middle East, and almost lost his life and career in the process. Disgraced and injured far beyond his physical limp and various scars, Gilchrest returns to Hawaii, the setting of many past former glories in hopes of redeeming himself.
Awaiting him is the one that got away, ex-girlfriend Tracy Woodside (Rachel McAdams), a shot at career resurrection (via military figures played by Alec Baldwin and Danny McBride), a fuss buss Air Force liaison named Allison Ng (Emma Stone) and of course all the emotional baggage he’s trying to escape. Gilcrest is the classic emotionally shut down male: in denial, avoiding any personal connection or responsibility and using work as a means to avoid the rest of his train-wrecked life. And there are essentially two narratives in “Aloha,” the story of Gilcrest coming to terms with his crashed-and-burned past relationship so he can fall in love again and the much clunkier and convoluted plot of Gilcrest overseeing a satellite launch over the skies of Hawaii. In rather facile fashion, love, or its potential at least, represents hope, and the military aspect of the movie stands in for cynicism and everything that’s wrong with Gilcrest’s life.
The satellite launch is kind of the meaningless McGuffin of the movie, designed to give Gilcrest obstacles (via Bill Murray’s billionaire Carson Welch) along with a fight for his very soul. But the military operation element of that storyline doesn’t have much convincing emotional weight; it’s an obvious construct and one that Crowe doesn’t seem to have much affinity for. In fact, the entire military industrial complex aspect of the movie and how it applies to Cooper’s career dishonor is a muddle that’s not communicated very clearly throughout. More successful to a relative degree is Crowe’s bread-and-butter subjects of loss, love, regret and redemption though these conversant elements also becomes just as overdone.
“Feel all the feels” is an obnoxious buzz phrase, but it is very apropos to Crowe’s approach. Clearly written to music, “Aloha” must feature over fifty soundtrack cuts which are employed as wall to wall woozy sonic wallpaper with no respite. Ironically, Crowe’s would-be ace in the hole—contemporary pop music—is what backfires hardest on the film. So bursting to communicate emotional yearning, “Aloha” strains itself, slathering dreamy or dolorous music cue after music cue on top of each other. Whether its Jonsi’s pillowy score or the ubiquitous pop tracks the movie heavily leans on like a crutch (everything from Beck, Fleetwood Mac to Josh Ritter and more traditional Hawaiian music from Genoa Keawe and Cyril Pahinui), if “Aloha” is already caked in reflective melancholy then its atmospheric music is really just more moody syrup on top.
One of the fundamental problems of “Aloha” is how it whisks through Gilcrest’s recent failures. Characters often tell us over dialogue that Gilcrest is damaged goods, but having never lived through his issues—other than having briefly seen them in opening montage—the filmmaker asks much of the audience to understand and empathize with Cooper’s emotionally closed-off character.
More crucially, sparks never really fly between Cooper and Stone, or at least not how they should. Alison Ng is simply too eager to fall in love with Gilcrest despite his being a Class-1 asshole, and their relationship advances far too fast and inorganically. Somewhat miscast, Stone’s over-caffeinated “His Girl Friday” chatterbox routine doesn’t really do the movie many favors and as a fastidious watchdog who’s mostly just captivated with Gilcrest, her various and extensive charms are never as well utilized as they should be.
Cooper and the naturalistic McAdams have better chemistry together, and thanks to their authentic alchemy, the audience buys into the conflicted feelings that Gilcrest and Tracy have one another. We don’t need montages or flashback to their past, as their effortlessly shared performance creates its own credible history. Crowe’s strong suit in general is Tracy’s side of the story, leavened by her non-communicative Air Force husband (played by John Krasinski) and her two kids (Jaeden Lieberher, the kid from “St. Vincent,” and Danielle Rose Russell).
Crowe overcooks so much of the movie it’s almost as if he can’t trust his instincts of what’s already there. One illuminating sequence—a riff on how men don’t communicate with words, but still express everything through body language—is the standout clever moment of the movie. And yet the comedic callback to this gag later on stumbles horribly. To call “Aloha” tonally misjudged is mostly unfair, because Crowe knows what he’s going for—even if he overindulges in that mood almost at all times—but the scene in question is a big blunder.
The Hawaiian backdrop of “Aloha” is curious window dressing too. A clutch part of the narrative—for Gilcrest at least—is receiving the blessing of Hawaiian leaders for their satellite launch and whether or not he’ll betray them in the end for his own opportunistic gain. And so much of the early part of the movie possesses balmy spiritual notes, hopeful mysticism and the notions of charmed apparitions swirling through the misty mountains which counterbalance Gilcrest’s bitter cynicism. But after introducing these ideas—complete with another misjudged scene that actually features ghosts walking through the hills—via the more optimistic Ng, “Aloha” mostly abandons the new age huna spirit midway through the picture as it grows content in being a more conventional Cameron Crowe-built romantic dramedy.
As it comes to its clunky conclusion—featuring a half dozen too many saccharine goodbye endings for each character and a super contrived plot point that hinges on Tracy’s always-camcorder-recording son—it becomes fairly evident that what once worked so well for Crowe, has fallen into disrepair and needs a serious rethink. At its most basic, and possibly mundane, “Aloha” is about a man standing at the crossroads of his life, staring back fondly at the past and deciding whether he wants to embrace the future. As cliché as it sounds, it’s not the worst idea for a movie, and Crowe’s warm humanist imprint of yore might have done it heartfelt justice. But “Aloha” is so fixated in channeling its forlorn, overly earnest spirit it distresses its own basic fabric at every turn. At their best, Cameron Crowe’s films and their cinematic poptimist sensibilities are soulfully funny, sad and life-affirming, even the semi-cloying “We Bought A Zoo” was too warm-hearted to dislike. But through lacquering of mood, Crowe’s just discards his delicate touch early on and “Aloha” never recovers. While not as wildly misguided as “Elizabethtown,” Crowe’s latest effort is arguably just as dissatisfying and it will certainly set back the trust in his brand for quite some time. [C-]