And I try, oh my God do I try
I try all the time
In this institution
- 4 Non Blondes
It just seems fitting to start off a review of a Cameron Crowe movie with a song quote, as it’s his use of needledrops that may end up being the filmmaker’s most lasting legacy. And this quote in particular works, because oh my God does Cameron Crowe try. There’s no question that he is doing his best and he is trying and that he has things to say in all of his movies, even the bad ones. Even the bad ones see Crowe pouring his heart into every scene and every character, searching for meaning and connection, looking to take us on an emotional journey that will leave us hopeful and elevated.
Which is why it hurts so very much when he fails so very hard. And he fails catastrophically with Aloha.
Lately I have noticed a trend in certain kinds of bad movies: movies that seem like jokes, like the sort of joke movie you’d see a character watching in a movie, and movies that feel like bad adaptations of lengthy novels. Aloha manages to be both.
Aloha is a movie about ancient Hawaiian ghosts and secret nuclear missile payloads. It’s a movie about a broken man who finds one last chance at redemption with a bright-eyed young idealist and it’s about a guy who returns to see his old flame one more time and try to figure out where his life is going. Both of those guys are Bradley Cooper, walking between two movies that feel barely connected, like he’s stepping through a dimensional portal in between scenes, showing up on Earth 2 to romance Emma Stone and then sliding on over to Earth S to cozy up with Rachel McAdams. And then he brings the nuclear missiles from Earth 2 back with him to the gentle Hawaiian spirits of Earth S and you have this crisis on infinite Bradley Coopers.
Let’s start with one of the main problems of the movie (beyond the disjointed script): Cooper himself. He’s playing a guy who is supposed to be burnt out and over the hill, but he’s got the charm and cockiness of the big man on campus from the first time we see him. Everybody he meets tells him how bad he looks, but he looks amazing, all buff with his American Sniper muscle and his charming eyes set in that bro-face. You wonder if this is supposed to be a joke, if the idea is that Cooper was even more profoundly ruggedly handsome 13 years ago, the last time he was in Hawaii. But no, it’s just dismal casting, like asking The Rock to play a scrawny nerd. Cooper possibly could play a burn-out, a wash-up, a guy who has lived the past few years in a bitter haze, but he’s certainly not doing it here. He’s just a pretty cool bro, albeit one with a limp.
That limp comes from the fact that Cooper’s character was blowed up in Afghanistan. If there’s dissonance between what the script tells us about Cooper’s character and the way he plays it, there’s a gaping void in the part of Cooper’s character where we’re supposed to understand his job and life. He’s a contractor working for a billionaire, but the movie believes a contractor’s job spans things from setting up illicit arms deals with Afghani warlords to getting down to the command line on his laptop to battle Chinese hackers on the coding level. He may also be a pilot, I’m not entirely clear on this.
And that lack of clarity plagues the character on every level, and it plagues the script on every level. In the opening scene we learn that Cooper is coming to Hawaii to take part in a blessing ceremony for a pedestrian gate… but the film teases out, slowly and stupidly, just what that means, why he’s involved and what the stakes of that blessing ceremony might be. It isn’t until the third act that I really understood why Cooper’s character was in Hawaii, and this is information everybody in the movie has from before the first frame of the film. This is bad screenwriting.
That bad screenwriting makes the film feel like a joke movie, because every other scene is so tonally different from the last, and because the plot is so confusing and expansive, that it plays like a parody of a melodrama. But it also feels like a bad adaptation of a novel for those same reasons - you could see how these duelling stories about Cooper’s character and his women play out in a long novel. You could see how the themes of Hawaiian spirits and the veneration of the sky goes hand in hand with the weaponization of space when not rushed on screen. And you could understand how some Hawaiian legend that McAdams’ son won’t shut up about could be woven into the structure of the novel without feeling shoe-horned in like thematic exposition in every scene (the kid basically keeps showing up and explaining to us the themes of the current section of the film).
The movie’s just a jumble, a total mess, and that plays out in both macro and micro ways. On a macro level none of the individual scenes come together to form a coherent movie, while on the micro level some scenes are incoherent within themselves. Stone and Cooper go on a forced hike up a mountain and their witty banter is both strained and elliptical, and what’s worse is that their reactions to each chunk of dialogue feel unmotivated - one will say something and the other will, for reasons I could not understand, get really mad. Or get really excited. It’s like Crowe wanted to write a scene where the characters talk around what they’re really saying but went so around the point that he left behind all meaning.
Stone is absolutely gorgeous and an excellent comedic presence in the film, but Crowe gives her a character who is one step above a cipher. She’s a manic pixie dream girl until Cooper fucks that out of her, and then she’s sort of a human representation of his conscience. Her story is, on every level and in every way, subservient to him. She exists only to reflect him and to advance his story. It’s a bummer, because she is so goddamned great and watchable. You almost forgive the movie for wasting her so badly.
McAdams? I literally don’t know why she’s in the movie. The storyline with McAdams and her kids and her mute Marine husband played by John Krasinski is absolutely tangential to everything that happens in the rest of the film; even the big reveal at the climax of this plotline is so removed from the main story that Cooper doesn’t share it with anyone else. You know how people like making up fan theories about how certain characters don’t exist/were dead the whole time? Maybe McAdams’ entire family are ghosts only Cooper can see.
Bill Murray shows up, doing a funny dance and playing a non-character. Alec Baldwin has a scene where he yells, as you want Alec Baldwin to do. Other stuff happens. Some of it is nicely shot, much of it is dramatically inert.
At the center of it all is Hawaii, sometimes beautiful looking, sometimes shot in a way to make it weirdly generic. And quietly, under all that, are the racial issues that go almost untouched. See, there are native Hawaiians, and there is a sovereign nation of Hawaii, and they’re the ones who have to bless this new gate. Cooper has to go to their leader, an old pal of his, and convince him to do this blessing. And when they show up and meet real Hawaiian militant leader Dennis “Bumpy” Pu‘uhonua Kanahele the movie (now returned to Earth S) gets very interesting. Bumpy and Cooper have a talk about how the United States took Hawaii, and there is argument and debate about the sovereign nation of Hawaii and how the haole treat the Hawaiians. And Cooper has to make promises he can’t keep, and he doesn’t keep, and you start to think “Oh this is good, this is meaty. This truly is a story about a man of two worlds, and all of these disparate thematic elements will come together. Also, good on Crowe for giving native peoples a spotlight to air their grievances in a major motion picture!”
But once Cooper leaves the Sovereign Nation of Hawaii that’s it for the Hawaiians. It’s haoles for the rest of the film (despite Stone’s character unconvincingly claiming she’s a quarter Hawaiian) and the next time we see those nationalist characters they’re dressed in native garb doing a dog and pony show for a bunch of white folks and that’s the end of them. They’re diminished from people with a political point of view to mystic minorities. And the loss of these characters and their viewpoints isn’t just bad for the usual social justice warrior whining reasons, it’s bad because their absence make Aloha a lesser movie. Losing them removes the focus of the film and much of the uniqueness of the setting.
I wish I liked Aloha. It’s watchable, in a semi-coherent way. But it’s bad, very bad, very badly written and very badly conceived. All of that badness is filtered through a sense that Crowe really cares, that he’s really trying, and that it is just not coming together for him at all.