It Also Means "Goodbye"
Did I ever tell you about the panic attack I had while watching Elizabethtown? Ten years ago, my wife and I went to see what was, at the time, the new Cameron Crowe film. The brains and heart behind such classics as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous, Crowe stood tall in our personal pantheon of generational greats—second only to John Hughes. His movies spoke to us as hopeful young searchers in a world bustling with the deliberately lost. But everything changed that afternoon, as my moral stance against leaving a movie before it finished clashed with an unrelenting psychic assault of twee, cookie-cutter drivel that simply…would...not...end.
Fast-forward a decade. Enough time had passed that I’d forgotten what it was like for a movie to incapacitate me with despair.* Maybe it was time to give my one-time hero another shot.** Sure, Aloha’s trailer made it look like another identity-starved dram-com about a Damaged Guy (Bradley Cooper) pining for The Girl That Got Away (Rachel McAdams) while also, maybe (definitely), falling for a Comely Young Thang (Emma Stone). What the canny marketers didn’t give away was the fact that only half the film is a gooey, complicated love story; the other half is a rusty-B-52 of a polemic against the military industrial complex that belongs in another film—if anywhere at all.
Granted, I don't know how one would sell this schizophrenic disaster to theatregoers who just want to enjoy a light love triangle,*** with a dash of adorable hipster hero Bill Murray thrown in. You know that touching trailer moment where Murray’s character opines about life? Remember the chills? Well, it’s a throwaway line in the movie, dumped into one of those annoying scenes in which people in a crowded club seem to have a perfect grasp of what others are saying and doing across the room.
So what’s the movie about? Damned if I know. Cooper plays a disgraced former Air Force hotshot who takes a gig helping a billionaire (Murray) get a civilian satellite into space over Hawaii. This involves bartering with distrustful natives, and contending with both an eager, wide-eyed liaison (Stone) and an ex-girlfriend (McAdams) who lives on the island with her kids and never-around pilot husband (John Krasinski). Crowe was blessed with a game, capable cast and several nuggets of good (if played out) ideas. The problem is that he’s so afraid of being conventional that he spends all his time juggling narratives instead of committing to characters that feel real.
On top of that, the Hawaiian setting is beautiful but its cultural intrusiveness (or Crowe’s perception of it) is downright ugly. In the writer/director’s version of Hawaii, one could hardly ask for a gas station bathroom key without receiving a sappy, rambling oral history of the god Lono--or even a visit from the rain deity himself while zipping up. Alexander Payne's The Descendants creaked under the weight of this bizarre patronage, too, but not nearly as much. Imagine a film, set in Chicago, in which every character talks like the SNL Superfans, eats nothing but brats and deep-dish pizza, and drops the Great Fire of 1871 into every single conversation. Aloha is like that, and it's grating.
Speaking of grating, is Hollywood just about done with Emma Stone? I’m a big fan of the actress, but she’s very quickly become a new version of (to borrow Nathan Rabin’s description of Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown) The Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Stone has mastered the art of saving grumpy, privileged, middle-aged men from existential dread in films like Magic in the Moonlight, Birdman, Crazy Stupid Love, and now Aloha. In this, her most cartoonish role to date, she’s the unflappably chipper, island-lore-obsessed foil to Cooper’s flippant moper--until precisely the film’s halfway point, when the screenplay suddenly requires a modicum of sturdiness from this otherwise wobbly table leg. Stone shares a similar fate with Krasinski here, as his character is alternately a man of few words, a man of no words, an absentee father, a loving dad, a bottled-up rage machine, and Aloha’s Zen beating heart. The film’s characters are so inconsistent that it often seems as if Sony sent editor Joe Hutshing’s work-in-progress file to theatres instead of the completed film.
This is also a big step back (or at least sideways) for Cooper. Regardless of what you thought of American Sniper’s politics, there’s no denying that the actor created a unique, nuanced character—as he’s done in films like American Hustle and even Guardians of the Galaxy. Aloha represents the kind of movie that people who don’t like Bradley Cooper could easily point to as a confirmation of their bias. None of that blame belongs on his shoulders, though. He simply has nothing to work with—as exemplified by a truly bizarre scene in which his character gives a knowing look to another character and induces an onslaught of tears. I laughed out loud at this moment, which played less like empathetic bonding than the comic-book origin of a demented psychic assassin.
I won’t even touch the space/espionage plot: Real Genius pulled that thematic switcheroo thirty years ago, and only narrowly succeeded by working in an exploding popcorn house at the end. Look it up.
Aloha has all the hallmarks of a solid Cameron Crowe film. The artist has made a terrific career of championing creative outsiders against shifty adults, and he hasn’t lost his knack for orchestrating gooey, trailer-ready sentiment. Perhaps one too many laps around the industry hamster wheel softened his stance on convention—or dulled his ability to spot the traps. Whatever the case, Crowe’s youthful, lava-hot passion has coagulated and cooled, much like my ability to even get worked up over his movies. I’ll take a panic attack any day.
*The only “real-life” event to have this affect on me since was the sudden death of my father two years later. I still feel two things in my bones: Elizabethtown and that phone call.
**I skipped We Bought a Zoo, which is holding steady at #6,483 in my “Someday, I Guess” Queue.
***Remember, this is a summer release, not fall.