Cameron Crowe, who hit it big with the one-two punch of Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, has been relatively quiet over the past fifteen years, releasing only three features during that time: Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown, and We Bought A Zoo. Aloha is his first film in four years, though it's been in development for much longer than that (Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon were initially going to play the leads). So the movie has finally arrived, but is it any good? Sadly, the answer is no.
Writer/Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams
There are elements I enjoyed: the cast is excellent, the location is gorgeous, and you get the sense that this is a movie made for adults, which is increasingly rare in most mainstream films these days. But despite its positives, there was one glaring negative I couldn't get past: I just couldn't invest in the relationship between the main characters. I'll get to why I think that is in a minute, but first, a brief plot summary. Bradley Cooper plays a soldier-turned-contractor who works for a private tech company run by the unfortunately miscast Bill Murray. Cooper is sent to Hawaii to facilitate a blessing of a new land bridge so Murray's company can build launch stations there and put privatized satellites in orbit, but given Cooper's checkered past, Emma Stone — a young go-getter Air Force pilot — is tasked with babysitting him. Meanwhile, Cooper reunites with his old flame Rachel McAdams, who's now married with two kids, and we have the makings of a good old fashioned love triangle.
The film wants us to buy into a romance between Cooper and Stone, but their characters almost immediately start acting in a way that somehow seems unearned, as if the banter and flirtation comes totally out of nowhere. We see them meet in the opening minutes, and it's not long until they're clearly into each other, but it feels like there were entire scenes that were cut from that critical beginning stage of their relationship that would justify their behavior. I realize this is a weird complaint, but Aloha's oscillating tones don't do it any favors; its decision to not properly lay that groundwork compounds as the movie progresses, and because their interactions struck me as bizarre early on, I couldn't get on board with the love story as the film progressed. This could have been alleviated with just a few more lines of dialogue, but there was so much left unsaid (and not always in a good way).
In fact, I'd argue that this film is defined by what it doesn't say, to the point that it becomes a joke how John Krasinski's character, a strong silent soldier, only uses body language and facial expressions to communicate his ideas. (At first, I thought this was Krasinski's way of acting against type, but as soon as it's established that he mostly uses facial expressions to communicate, I remembered that's exactly what he did in his most recognizable role as Jim on The Office.) Aloha seems to go out of its way to avoid tropes that make it feel like a movie, eschewing exposition dumps for small pieces of information doled out in sensible conversations and featuring Crowe's naturalistic dialogue, which often sounds like real people might actually speak those words. (This has always been one of Crowe's main strengths as a filmmaker, going all the way back to his first screenplay, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.) The characters rarely talk in "movie-speak," and all of the relationships feel logical and real. It's a romantic film, so there's the occasional grand speech, but for the most part, the movie succeeds in avoiding cliches in the dialogue. So much of the story is told with furtive glances, darting eyes, and knowing looks, contributing to the feeling that you've been dropped into the middle of a story and are watching these people interact instead of watching actors act. The obvious exception is Danny McBride, whose character — nicknamed "Fingers" — is constantly and spastically flicking his fingers to the point of distraction.
There are a couple of moments that lend to deeper-than-surface-level readings (there's a line about being replaced by a comic book character of yourself that could be read as a statement about the movie industry today, and another piece of media commentary centering on the film's climax), but for the most part, this is a pretty straightforward story — albeit one told in a strangely roundabout way. If you can get past some of the weird tonal shifts and allow yourself to engage with the romance as it's presented, maybe you'll enjoy the movie more than I did. From my perspective, though, I just couldn't shake the feeling that Aloha feels incomplete, and as a result I found it to be a sort of baffling, jarring experience.