The first indication that Aloha is a project by filmmaker and music aficionado Cameron Crowe comes during the opening logos, when we hear a record player’s needle drop. The next sign is boastful voice-over from the main character, played by Bradley Cooper, speaking of his expertise as a defense contractor as we glimpse the earth from above. Nearly 20 years ago, in Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise’s title character also spoke of his career prowess as the camera fixated on our glimmering planet.
Regardless, the most obvious give-away of the film’s writer/director comes from the rapport of the two main characters. One is Brian Gilcrest (Cooper), a man who used to be a dreamer but has turned into a bottom line cynic. The other is a headstrong idealist, Private Allison Ng (pronounced “Ing,” played by Emma Stone), whose personal goal is to bring some sun into Brian’s life, as if he was invincible to UV rays. The dynamic of a romantic and a realist duking it out, with the inevitability of the latter returning to his former optimism, is a hallmark of Crowe’s. However, Aloha feels more like an inferior copy of one of the director’s former efforts than a new, more sharply realized project. With this retread, Crowe is beginning to sound like a broken record.
Brian is a defense contractor who has close ties with a multi-billionaire, Carson Welch (Bill Murray, too shaggy and aloof to be a convincing paragon of the private sector). Carson is days away from opening a space exploration base in the state and he wants Brian to help with the launch on the Hawaiian coastline. However, business isn’t the protagonist’s only distraction. Upon his arrival in the state, he bumps into an old flame, Tracy (Rachel McAdams, given an unsatisfying arc). She has raised two children near the U.S. Air Force base where her husband, Woody (a fine John Krasinski), often deploys. (A running joke of the oft mute Woody communicating with Brian through a series of glances, nods and stares is surprisingly sturdy.)
However, while Tracy rekindles some of the joy from years ago, Brian also finds a quick chemistry with Allison. She is the peppermint tea-drinking Air Force pilot tasked with accompanying him through Hawaii. Stone’s staunch command and quick tongue makes her stand out early on in this leisurely paced (and predictable) romantic comedy, although that tenacious streak peters out as she becomes more romantically entangled with Brian.
Crowe tends to be a softie, putting his characters in positions where they find a positive or moral outlook. He is so inclined to force the story to a sunny conclusion that he forces the protagonist into behaving in ways that seem antithetical to his core. While Crowe can write fantastic banter between the main actors – Cooper and Stone could be magnetic opposite rocks, so they are unreservedly natural with each other – the decisions and emotional changes in the story don’t feel authentic.
His seemingly eternal optimism invades Aloha’s screenplay, slowly turning it into romanticized slush. As one of the characters tells Brian, “If we can’t look up and see purity and promise, we are finished.” However, as Cooper and Stone banter about how different they are, it isn’t too hard to look ahead to see how one character will help to lead the other on a more fulfilling road. (Unsurprisingly, the greeting of the title is also a term of endearment.)
The chipper Allison tells many of the characters that she is one-quarter Hawaiian, although Aloha spends far less of that fraction of its running time with actual indigenous Hawaiians. Recent complaints of whitewashing the diversity of the island state aren’t unfounded. While spirituals myths related to Hawaiian Gods are present within the story fabric, non-White characters are few and far between. Nevertheless, a scene with Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, an activist and leader of a nationalist group who plays himself, notes the United States’ continued military occupation on the archipelago.
As Aloha depicts, although sparingly, native Hawaiians struggle to make a living and keep with their ancestral traditions as U.S. military forces use the island as a hub for economic opportunity. The film presents a schism between Brian’s career goals and Allison’s will to ensure there are no weapons in the sky, but there is too little involvement from native voices in this conflict. The scene with Kanahele only lasts a few minutes, while a sequence late in the film juxtaposes a satellite rotating above the Earth and an islander, looking dismal and disheveled, on the ground far below. This conflict is present but is, unfortunately, a minor subplot in Aloha that could have used a more significant exploration.
This marginalization is not the only sign of disrespect toward the state of Hawaii in Crowe’s film. Director of photography Eric Gautier (Into the Wild) shoots much of the film in tight close-ups, a creative decision that means Aloha will be more aesthetically pleasing on an airplane cabin screen than in a movie theatre. With the exception of a few sparkling establishing shots, this is one of the drabbest looking movies to ever feature the Hawaiian landscape. (Also shabby: CGI of satellites rotating above the Earth and views of the planet from space that would be passable for a late 1980s music video.)
“No one wants to be where they are,” Brian tells Allison, referring to the oasis where Aloha is set. “They all want to live in a fantasy.” Well, it seems that many of the characters are all quite content on Crowe’s sunny island, a place where people can change depending on the mystical Hawaiian spirits tampering with the atmosphere and where love can cause people to do some foolishly impulsive actions. It was inevitable that a filmmaker of such positive energy would find his way to such a sunny locale. Nevertheless, it’s a shame the outcome is such a pale shadow of the wise, witty stories the director is used to telling.
Aloha is a pale, predictable effort from Cameron Crowe, calling back to his previous feel-good flicks without covering new thematic ground.