Cameron Crowe’s ‘Aloha’ has its charms despite some of its baggage

29 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Aloha’: Watch the First Eight Minutes of Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone’s Rom-Com (Video).

Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone and Rachel McAdams’ romantic comedy Aloha hits theaters this weekend, but the first eight minutes of the film have already hit the Internet — legally! Somewhere on the incoherent pu pu platter that is Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha,” a nifty romantic comedy congeals and shrivels, inexplicably untouched. The Cameron Crowe-directed film, set in Hawaii, tells the story of Brian Gilcrest (Cooper) who returns to Honolulu and reconnects with his former love (McAdams) while falling romantically for his Air Force liaison (Stone).

His off-the-tourist-track look at Honolulu abounds with intriguing views of unexpected terrain and offers a glimpse of the indigenous population’s independence movement. Crowe — who gave the world such deathless lines as “You had me at ‘Hello,’ ” the man who put the boom box in Lloyd Dobler’s defiantly upstretched arms — spends so much time running away from his roots in “Aloha” that he misses the point of his own movie. Only a filmmaker out to put a permanent stake in the rom-com would take a couple of fizzily attractive movie stars and plop them into a story that hinges, not on a long-awaited first kiss or third-act Hail Mary, but on sundry bits of arcana involving Hawaiian mythology, military privatization, space weaponry and — be still, our beating hearts — sound transducing. “Aloha” is such an inchoate mess, such a forced, insular, self-pleasing misfire, that plotting it out can be a challenge. Cooper plays a disgraced ex-pilot torn better his long-lost love (McAdams), who’s now married with two kids, and the Air Force watchdog (Stone) assigned to him upon his return to the U.S. For another, the film industry is littered with classic movies that were initially thought to be duds. (How many oral histories don’t feature at least one participant bragging, “Oh, yeah, everybody thought this was going to ruin our careers”?) But in the case of Aloha, the bad advance press is warranted, and then some.

Bradley Cooper plays Brian Gilcrest, an Air Force veteran and military contractor who, as he laboriously explains during a saggy opening voice-over, developed an obsession with space as a young boy. Writer-director Cameron Crowe’s follow-up to We Bought a Zoo started inspiring online whispering after December’s Sony leak, which included an email from studio head Amy Pascal about the movie’s poor test scores and “ridiculous” script.

After a promising career at Hickam Air Force Base, he went over to the “gray side,” signing on with a billionaire (Bill Murray) who wants to get into the private space-flight racket. The film is already being bashed by critics, earning it a putrid 8% on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 50 reviews). “Unbalanced, unwieldy, and at times nearly unintelligible, ‘Aloha’ is unquestionably Cameron Crowe’s worst film,” Variety‘s Andrew Barker wrote in his review. All of this is to say that while I can’t make any excuses for “Aloha”— to the extent it can even figure out what movie it wants to be, it’s not a very good one — I can leaven my disappointment with mercy.

That Oscar- and Golden Globe-winner starred George Clooney as a very tan white Hawaiian, but at least explored the tricky terrain of identity and ownership bubbling under the surface of local politics in modern Hawaii. As “Aloha” opens, Gilcrest is returning to Honolulu to nudge the enterprise along by greasing some local palms, especially those of a local king played by real-life native leader Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele.

Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon were initially supposed to star in the project during its nascent stages. “Aloha” is Crowe’s first movie since 2011’s “We Bought a Zoo.” Alas: Aloha falls more in line with the Elvis Presley tradition, in which Hawaiian concerns serve as plot-driving stepping stones for a white hero’s personal and romantic misadventures. Gilcrest’s mission is complicated by two women: the overeager Air Force captain assigned to escort him, and an old girlfriend who is living on the base with her pilot husband and two kids. It’s also a puzzlingly disjointed ditty that falls much closer to Elizabethtown than Jerry Maguire on the spectrum of Cameron Crowe hits and misses.

But with the screenplay’s strained whimsy and pathos, not to mention its unpersuasive, at times incoherent musings on the politics of space exploration, Crowe squanders the star power at hand. As the wide-eyed, puppyish escort Allison Ng, Emma Stone takes perky officiousness into the realm of derangement; it’s up to each filmgoer to decide for him- or herself whether to believe for one minute that she’s one quarter native Hawaiian. (The film has come in for criticism for “whitewashing” native Hawaiian culture, notwithstanding Kanahele’s presence and near-constant digressions into the islands’ traditional animist beliefs.) As Gilcrest’s erstwhile squeeze, Rachel McAdams spends most of “Aloha” at sea — at least metaphorically — with the unreadable Gilcrest and her unintelligible husband. I can even say that I had a good time, a better time than I had at “Vanilla Sky” or “Elizabethtown.” But now I’m starting to get a little depressed. As with another major miss by the writer-director, 2005’s Elizabethtown, the new film has the awkward feel of a repository for everything but the kitchen sink. An early scene where they make goo-goo eyes at one another while a military casket emerges from the belly of a plane he’s just flown in on doesn’t bode well for the taste or tonal dissonance of what’s to come.

Aloha stars Bradley Cooper as Brian Gilcrest, a respected military contractor whose reputation has taken a severe beating. (The reasons for that will be explained, laboriously, over the course of the film.) His latest assignment is for Global One, a technology company run by an Elon Musk-like figure played by Bill Murray that plans to launch a satellite into orbit from a U.S. military outpost in Hawaii. Set among military service people and contractors in Hawaii, it’s a loose, leisurely hangout movie, funny and sprawling and full of eccentric, interesting folks.

As with most of his films, he jams as many musical cues as he can into “Aloha,” from the Who and Hall & Oates to a cameo from slack key guitarist Ledward Kaapana, in an attempt to sell scenes and emotions he otherwise can’t justify or resolve. While Gilcrest and Ng bounce around scenic locales and featureless motel rooms, they launch into weird, non sequitur-laden jags about space, sex, Gilcrest’s failure to commit and whatever else comes into their dippy, quippy, always camera-ready little heads. Edited by Crowe’s longtime cutter Joe Hutshing, “Aloha” has a choppy, scattershot feel that keeps the audience uncomfortably disoriented, as a series of “Where did that come from?” moments accumulate into a finale as unaffecting as it is unearned. (A penultimate passage, when Gilcrest exchanges supposedly cathartic glances with a supporting character, is particularly puzzling, given that her inner life has received zero attention for the preceding hour and a half.) The emotional hurdles are never higher than mere bumps, which Crowe quickly tries to smooth over with a patch of quirky dialogue, an adorable musical interlude or putting someone in a silly hat.

In fact, the most improbably satisfying moments of “Aloha” belong to a blowhard general played by Alec Baldwin, whose most florid outburst against Gilcrest’s entitled self-satisfaction could easily be directed at the very movie he’s in. Meanwhile, Brian is meeting very cute with Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a straight-arrow Air Force pilot assigned to babysit him while he’s on the island. It says a lot that Aloha is a bigger disaster than this weekend’s actual disaster flick, San Andreas, merited only by a cast that admirably acquits themselves of the movie around them, and the fact that we can assume the well-meaning Crowe meant well.

To quote Amy Pascal, the former Sony co-president whose hacked e-mails last winter revealed her lack of faith in “Aloha”: “It never, not even once, ever works.” As with many of the leaked exchanges with her colleagues, Pascal’s words formed a candid tutorial in Hollywood sausage-making and, in a sobering sense, the principles that guide our common culture and chief export commodity. In its opening stretches, Aloha derives some nervous comic energy from Brian’s chaotic return to Hawaii, an emotionally charged locale for him. (It’s the site of his greatest career successes, and it’s where he and Tracy fell in love.) Much like his predecessor James L. Though they haven’t spoken in 13 years and she’s the married mother of two tweens, Tracy pulls him back into their unresolved romantic business with a jarring urgency, venting freely about her uncommunicative husband, Woody.

As Pascal reminded her colleagues, the studio had “a lot of dough” tied up in “Aloha,” which makes its artistic failure that much more depressing. Brooks, Crowe infuses his best films with the messy liveliness of the everyday: how people are funniest and most revealing when they’re at their wits’ end. Sony makes its money on “Spider-Man” sequels, “Smurfs” and “Paul Blart,” but it’s also one of the few big studios left that tries to make the kind of mid-range movie that Hollywood supposedly doesn’t produce anymore — romantic comedies, adult dramas, political thrillers by the likes of David O. Between reuniting with Tracy and getting a bead on the nerdy, pushy, by-the-book Allison—who takes far too much satisfaction in informing everyone that she’s one-quarter Hawaiian—Brian is a man awash in chaos, his past and his present rubbing up against each other awkwardly. Meanwhile, Aloha’s already caught heat from Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders for appropriating its title from a word laden with meaning and history.

Woody might eye Gilcrest warily, and General Dixon (Alec Baldwin, in angry-boss mode) might not be a fan, but Danny McBride’s second-in-command (a thoroughly underdeveloped role) welcomes him warmly. Or, rather, doing something else, while you sip your Diet Coke and wish that your troubles could be as silly, as charming and as weirdly, idiosyncratically glamorous as what you see on screen. A scathing statement issued by the Media Action Network for Asian Americans fired the first shot. “60% of Hawaii’s population is [Asian American Pacific Islanders]. If anything, Crowe goes too far in the opposite direction, depicting Hawaii as some sort of magical paradise in which spirit forces keep informing the characters’ behavior. (We’re meant to understand that these unenlightened whites could learn a thing or two from the natives’ close communion with nature.) Aloha’s treatment of the islands and its inhabitants is condescending, but never fatal.

Caucasians only make up 30 percent of the population [of Hawaii], but from watching this film, you’d think they made up 99 percent,” said MANAA President Guy Aoki. “This comes in a long line of films—The Descendants, 50 First Dates, Blue Crush, Pearl Harbor—that uses Hawaii for its exotic backdrop but goes out of its way to exclude the very people who live there. It’s an insult to the diverse culture and fabric of Hawaii.” MANAA and other critics didn’t get to see the film before issuing their statements; Sony didn’t conduct a press day for the movie (translation: no stars did interviews) and hid the film from everyone, including journalists, until three days before it opened. But now Welch and the military are depending on Gilcrest’s friendship with a local Hawaiian leader to smooth the way for the entrepreneur’s Hickam-based space program. Unfortunately, it’s also occasion for more self-congratulatory overexuberance from Stone’s Ng, who likes to point out that she’s a quarter Hawaiian.

This film is far more thoughtful and engaging than a comparably witless action movie, but because Crowe movies are dependent on coherent storytelling and satisfying characters, its failure is all the more egregious. Crowe does, however, make good use of their contrasting experiences during the drive home from Kanahele’s village, when they have an encounter on the night road: She considers it a sacred vision, while he chalks it up to something more prosaic. After a long hot streak, Cooper mostly delivers a variation of Crowe’s flustered/floundering man-child, while Stone overdoes Allison’s go-get-’em, aren’t-I-cute-as-a-button? demeanor.

Tracy’s son (Jaeden Lieberher) is obsessed with the subject and pointedly identifies Gilcrest with the god Lono — echoing the hope that Tracy attaches to his return. There’s some less good stuff too, including a few worn-out, generationally questionable musical cues. (I think they call it “dad rock” nowadays.

Native, because the blond, green-eyed Ng is one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Hawaiian, and one-quarter Swedish, making Aloha the first major studio movie to explain to white folks how you pronounce the name “Ng” (like ‘ring,’ without the R). I remember when it was “classic rock.” Before that I guess it was just “rock,” but let’s not date ourselves.) Then there is the way Hawaii and its indigenous people are used as an evocative, superficial backdrop for the troubles of white people.

The last several months, we’ve had a handful of original studio films come out that aren’t in the comic book or reboot mold: Interstellar, Jupiter Ascending, Chappie, Tomorrowland. These are the sorts of movies you’d want to champion, but you can’t, because unfortunately, they’ve run the gamut from uneven to outright terrible. Instead, his “love letter” to Hawaii feels about as authentic as a mainlander’s #TBT to that one exotic Oahu vacay years ago, sipping Mai Tais on the beach at sunset while watching the hula show. In the strangest sequence, Crowe bares his rock ’n’ roll heart — the passion that made Almost Famous such an affecting portrait of fandom — and unleashes a digital collection of pop-culture artifacts as an antidote to the military-industrial complex.

Americans took the land away from its rightful owners long ago, he says with friendly reserve, resisting Gilcrest’s offer to get in bed with the U.S. government. Yet even when the plot pushes too hard, abetted by busy handheld camerawork, Crowe’s use of actual locations and Clay Griffith’s astute production design have the ring of authenticity. Responding to the whitewashing backlash, Sony jumped to Crowe’s defense citing years of research and “many months” spent immersed on location in Hawaii. “While some have been quick to judge a movie they haven’t seen and a script they haven’t read, the film Aloha respectfully showcases the spirit and culture of the Hawaiian people,” the studio said.

He earned the trust of many Hawaiian community leaders, including Dennis ‘Bumpy’ Kanahele, who plays a key role in the film.” Unfortunately, the plot thread involving Kanahele and the Native Hawaiian cause dissipates like the mythological Menehune into the misty Hawaiian night. The movie’s final redemptive gesture — though beautifully played by Danielle Rose Russell, as Tracy’s hula-dancing daughter — only reinforces the sense of posturing in most everything that precedes it. There’s also a daughter (Danielle Rose Russell), but that’s enough summarizing for now. “Aloha” has too much story and yet not quite enough, and its rhythms are rushed and pokey.

We’re invited to think about lofty, global matters like the fate of American identity in an age of corporate hegemony and then told to forget about it and have another beer.

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