A respected military defence worker (Bradley Cooper) returns to the US Space Program in Honolulu, Hawaii, for a project which will see the launch of weapons satellite into space. There, as he reconnects with a former lover (Rachel McAdams) who is now married, he finds himself unexpectedly falling for the Air Force pilot assigned to him (Emma Stone). This romantic comedy directed by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) also stars Bill Murray and Alex Baldwin.
As a rule, critics aren’t meant to be kind, but they are supposed to be reasonable. Movie events like Aloha, a Hawaii-set romantic comedy from writer-director Cameron Crowe, arise like a case to test that hope. Still, there is every reason to greet the promise of Aloha with optimism. Crowe has one of the most distinctive directorial voices in mainstream American cinema. At his best in things like Say Anything (1989), Singles (1992), Almost Famous (2000), and even Jerry Maguire (1996), his love of people and complex feelings for their modest dreams was intoxicating; his adoration of rock music as power and purgative glistens. These movies have a look of sparkling golden highlights and a camera that embraces awkward silence as much as it adores a pretty face. They’re full of smart talk and flawed folk who want to do the right thing by kith and kin; this is combined with a need to make the peace with themselves and the universe. He has a way of turning that mouthful of magical thinking into a persuasive sweetness.
Crowe is back in his comfort zone with Aloha and he has a can’t-miss cast in Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone and Rachel McAdams to help him explore his favoured territory. But the movie was dubbed a disaster long ago and now it has been seen, the reviews from the US seem to have confirmed the rumours. Which is to say, track record and star power are meaningless when something like Aloha lands dead on arrival. That is ironic since in part it’s a movie about a guy with a bad rep returning to a place he once called home, looking for a way to start over. But then it seems both reasonable and kind to assess that Aloha never had much of a chance in the first place. The Sony hack of December 2014 revealed a project in trouble and a head office looking for an exit strategy with then SPE co-head Amy Pascal declaiming “it doesn’t work” in one notorious email exchange.
Then, last week, the movie took another hit when the Media Action Network of Asian-Americans accused Crowe and Sony of a “white-wash”. Hollywood has a well-deserved bad rap when it comes to respecting cultural sensitivities in casting. The trouble here is that Crowe and co. have Emma Stone as a US fighter pilot with a Chinese-Hawaiian-Swedish gene pool who takes it as her birth right to correct mainlander imperialism in the islands. For the record, Stone was born in Arizona. There’s no way to account for this kind of nonsense beyond alibi-ing such choices as commercial imperatives. But I suspect Crowe sees it for what it is; one of my favourite bits in the movie is when Stone explains to Cooper her heritage. His ‘you’re kidding, right?’ look in response isn’t enough to let anyone off the hook, but at least the movie isn’t hoping no one would notice.
Yet, I suspect this stoush over the movie’s cultural responsibility has complex roots. In amongst the movie’s tangled strands of plot and subplot there’s a storyline involving the Nation of Hawai’i, the island’s oldest independence organisation. They advocate a republic. Its leader, Dennis Pu‘uhonua "Bumpy" Kanahele, plays himself (very well) and appears in a t-shirt that says, ‘Hawaiian by Birth, American by Force’. That kind of real-world tension ties into one of the film’s major plotlines. Here, the military use the Polynesian tradition as a PR exercise, diminishing the reconciliation role to subordinate status. Meanwhile, the deals they do make are with deep pocket moguls whose projects may well have a sinister impact on the locals.
This is the compromised galaxy of Brian Gilcrest (Cooper), ex-US forces and military contractor with a bad conscience and a love of outer space (!). He’s in Hawaii to stich things up for Carson Welch (Bill Murray), an astrospace entrepreneur preparing to launch an alleged communications satellite with the full co-operation of the Air Force. Brian’s military minder is Allison Ng (Stone), who nails him on sight as damaged goods. But since this is a Cameron Crowe pic, that makes him all the more worthy of a romantic make over.
Complicating this potential entanglement are Brian’s unresolved feelings for his now-married ex-girlfriend Tracey (Rachel McAdams), whose spouse is an air force pilot called Woody (John Krasinki) who doesn’t speak. We never really find out why; but it can’t be easy to live with. If you think that’s a head-scratcher, wait for the post-coital tender love scene where the happy couple in question discuss the relative merits of digital corrective surgery. (I’m not kidding.)
The actors tune their performances for maximum charm, with an emphasis on goofing it up, which finds its climax in a lunatic musical gag where idealist Alison has a ‘dance-off’ with Murray’s creepy rich dude. Crowe balances this stick-in-the-throat cuteness with emotional earnestness; it’s about the guy who has to learn to let go and forgive himself for the road not taken. I only wish Crowe’s once reliable talent for whip smart dialogue wasn’t on holiday here. I wish, too, we didn’t have to take Brian’s love for Alison on faith. But Aloha is simpler and more coherent than its reputation suggests. Crowe’s desire to plunge into the murky disquiet of loss can’t be reduced to simply flirting with someone else’s missus in the hope of a sympathy sleepover. It’s about confronting the kind of real pain Hollywood avoids like the plague, which might explain Sony’s loathing for it.
I actually enjoyed the sprawling messiness of it. It has an eccentric, oddball energy I find bracing in a cinema that is increasingly safe. You tolerate its weird whimsy, soul searching, side tracks and assumptions the way you would a loveable long-time pal – with a bemused indulgence, because when that rare connection hits, the sense of uplift obliterates all the bad stuff.