by Lee Purvey
Some directors err through reinvention. The Coen Brothers departed their twisted hilarious world for the first time to shoot a conventional pop western in True Grit, resulting in the blandest film of their careers. David Fincher abandoned his slick entertainment-driven ethos with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a bloated, high-minded disaster. Other folks avoid this kind of creative mid-life crisis, sticking to their thematic and aesthetic guns across their career, only to lose the spark with which they first approached it.
Director: Cameron Crowe
Producers: Cameron Crowe, Scott Rudin
Writer: Cameron Crowe
Cinematographer: Eric Gautier
Editor: Joe Hutshing
Music: Jon Thor Birgisson
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin
US Theatrical Release: May 29, 2015
US Distributors: Sony Pictures Releasing, 20th Century Fox
Remember Scoop? Coming off his sadistically effective amorality play Match Point, Woody Allen opted for a supernatural whodunit romp for a follow-up. Joining Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman in front of the camera, Allen made a film containing all of the elements that served his successes so well: magic, existential angst, Woody Allen. Yet what resulted wasn’t just a relative failure for one of the best directors in recent English-language film, but just a really, really bad movie by any standards.
Cameron Crowe’s latest film Aloha (and apparently most of his recent work, although I haven’t personally seen anything post-Almost Famous) feels sort of like his Scoop--a talented, thoughtful filmmaker addressing the same themes he’s confronted throughout his career with the same playful plot devices, yet falling totally flat in the attempt.
You can’t knock the guy’s tenacity. Kicking off his career with the most ambivalent teen romance of the North American 1980s (‘89’s Say Anything…), the writer-director has spent the better part of three decades making films about love stories (both romantic and familial) that only ever sort of work out. Setting Crowe apart from more morbid professional dysfunctionalists (Noah Baumbach, Woody Allen when he’s not being funny, etc.), however, is an evident compassion for his characters and their story, in spite of their imperfections.
Aloha, then, doesn’t break any new ground in terms of themes: a jaded military contractor named Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) arrives in Hawaii (old haunts from his days as some kind of military professional, apparently?) to broker a blessing on a land development with officials from the Nation of Hawaii political group (the film actually features Nation of Hawaii head Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele playing himself). Approaching middle age, Gilcrest wears the scars (both metaphorical and literal, his leg mangled by an explosive in Afghanistan) of a long and painful career. And in Hawaii, he’s forced to confront the life that could have been in the form of an old flame (Rachel McAdams) and her family (two children and a comely silent husband, played by John Krasinski).
Apparently 13 years of absence means little when we’re talking Bradley Cooper and the sparks begin to fly immediately between the former lovers--a situation exacerbated by preexisting communication problems in her marriage (Krasinski’s Woody speaks only a few times the whole movie). But the real love interest comes in Emma Stone’s Allison Ng, an ultra type-A rising star in the Air Force assigned to follow Gilcrest around through the same shaky causal logistics governing pretty much all of the film’s plot developments not explicitly related to romance.
It quickly becomes clear that Gilcrest is approaching a sort of mid-life fork in the road, where the broken man will make a final bid for romantic redemption or succumb to his selfish, cynical devotion to his crooked profession: “you’re a workaholic who creates work to avoid real work,” McAdams’ Tracy sums up nicely. (Tracy’s precocious son, played by Jaeden Lieberher, adds to the mythical cast of the visit with predictions of major-league celestial happenings during Gilcrest’s stay, invoking some sort of vague but romantic-comedically convenient Hawaiian spirituality.)
Painfully tacked onto this classic redemptive tale is the skeleton of a Connery-era Bond plot, unfortunately left in charge of the dramatic momentum during the film’s final third. Gilcrest’s employer Carson Welch (Bill Murray, delivering a silky dance floor performance meriting the 10 bucks or whatever it takes to see this movie) is a spend-happy billionaire with nefarious plans for his own private military presence in space.
A lot of this stuff never really congeals, narratively speaking, and the climax Crowe stumbles to is symbolically vague at best, desperately cheesy at worst--and most unfortunately not very dramatically compelling either way. You can count on the guy to make the right call in the end, even if the right call sometimes is to just Let Her Go, etc.
This is the type of bad film subpar critics love to pick on--a plot so piecemeal it almost feels beyond reproof, Crowe’s apathy somehow sweetly, innocently transcendent. But Aloha’s actually a pretty entertaining film. It doesn’t hurt that everyone here responds to a criminally sloppy script by acting his or her pants off. Stone, so migrainously dysfunctional in last year’s Birdman, approaches her one-note Girl Scout with a tenacity that makes it clear she’s having a lot of fun. I'm not sure whether even Cooper himself understands his character’s emotional trajectory, but he emotes admirably nonetheless. Alec Baldwin yells.
The thing is, films used to be able to get away with being this bad while still mustering the dynamic performances and original concept to be hits (both commercially and critically). Remember Bull Durham? Nobody has or ever will accuse Cameron Crowe of being an auteur. Even his masterpieces Say Anything… and Jerry Maguire had their sloppy moments; that’s what let them hit so true and made them so darn lovable. I doubt Crowe has enough creative focus left in the tank to make another Say Anything…, but at 57 years old and eight features deep the man’s still trying. There’s something Crowe-ishly sweet about the whole thing, even if it’s all pretty stupid. Have his films gotten worse or are we just more cynical?