Unbalanced, unwieldy, and at times nearly unintelligible, “Aloha” is unquestionably Cameron Crowe’s worst film. Paced like a record on the wrong speed, or a Nancy Meyers movie recut by an over-caffeinated Jean-Luc Godard, the film bears all the telltale signs of a poorly executed salvage operation disfigured in the editing bay. But as far as misfires from great American filmmakers go, it’s a fascinating one, less a simple failed Cameron Crowe film than a total deconstruction. Given its rather extraordinary bad pre-release buzz and what is sure to be poor word of mouth from any viewer expecting a new “Jerry Maguire” (or even a new “Elizabethtown”), the film’s commercial prospects look murky. But when faced with a work this fatally misguided, one can only hope it will serve an emetic purpose, a cleansing of the system before Crowe can get his mojo working again.
Speaking of that pre-release buzz, the specter of failure surrounding “Aloha” took on a life of its own over the past few months. From former Sony Pictures co-chief Amy Pascal’s fierce critiques in those infamous hacked memos, to Hawaiian groups expressing concern, sight unseen, that the film would represent a whitewashing of native culture, the project was put through the wringer long before critics and most industryites even had a chance to see it.
As it turns out, those concerns are the least of the pic’s worries. By the time the film is actually unleashed on the world, viewers are more likely to be grumbling about the fact that, despite an introductory voiceover and numerous rapid-fire bursts of expository dialogue, it takes an exceedingly long time to figure out just who the characters are, what they want, and what they’re doing.
“Aloha” centers on Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), a disillusioned former pilot and space aficionado with a shadowy past in Afghanistan, who is currently working as a military contractor for a flamboyant industrialist (Bill Murray). He’s en route to Oahu to supervise the “blessing of a pedestrian gate.” The precise nature and purpose of this task is hazy, but it seems to involve some bargaining with natives on a sanctuary, the relocation of ancient bones, and a mysterious satellite launch.
Immediately after stepping off the plane, Gilcrest is confronted by old flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams), who is married to a hard-working Air Force recruit (John Krasinski) who has recently stopped speaking. (At times this simply means he’s taciturn; at others he appears to be an actual mute.) Meanwhile, the local colonel (Danny McBride) has arranged for Gilcrest to be accompanied by a handler — a fast-talking, by-the-book fighter pilot named Allison Ng (Emma Stone). She’s proudly one-quarter Hawaiian, a plot point that’s sure to raise red flags, though in context it plays more like a running joke, akin to the lily-white frat brother who talks endlessly about his vague Cherokee heritage.
On that note, while it’s perfectly germane to ask why an actual Hawaiian actress couldn’t have tackled the part, “Aloha” is hardly culturally insensitive. It’s true that the major characters are all haole (Ng’s quarter aside), as one might expect from a film set mostly on a U.S. military base. But to be fair, “Aloha” goes deeper into the vicissitudes of Hawaiian heritage than any Hollywood film of recent memory. Real-life Nation of Hawaii leader Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele plays himself in a substantial cameo role — wearing a T-shirt that reads “Hawaiian by Birth, American by Force” — precisely to lament mainlander imperialism, and island myths factor heavily, if typically obliquely, into the story.
As Ng and Gilcrest criss-cross the islands, doing whatever it is that they’re supposed to be doing, they hatch a hesitant romance and may or may not have a supernatural experience, while Gilcrest’s sporadic discussions with Tracy hint at the questionable parentage of her preteen daughter (Danielle Rose Russell). The overarching themes here appear to be Gilcrest’s redemption — though what he’s being redeemed for is never satisfactorily articulated – and the preservation of Hawaii’s sacred aura, as underscored by Tracy’s precocious, videocamera-toting son (Jaeden Lieberher), who proves to be an encyclopedic fount of knowledge about the fertility god Lono.
Most, but certainly not all, of these divergent narrative strands come together by the end, yet the filmmaking is so haphazard that it’s hard to care about any of it. Crowe’s once-deft touch for breezy, epigrammatic profundity has eluded him on his past few features, from the self-parodic “Elizabethtown” to the harmlessly mediocre “We Bought a Zoo,” but it’s hard to understand how a writer-director as good as he is could make a film this thoroughly scattered and dysfunctional. Sometimes “Aloha” almost feels like an expression of frustration, a frantic feature-length attempt to bundle all his narrative tics and stray emotional bric-a-brac into a rocket and blast it off into space.
And as for the characters, Gilcrest is both over-explained and inscrutable, and Cooper never quite finds the right register to bring him to life. Ng is almost fleshed out by Stone’s energetic performance, though the character’s essential contradictions — for one, she’s terrified of the idea of weaponized satellites polluting the peaceful purity of the Hawaiian sky, even though she’s a fighter pilot — keep her feeling like an undercooked writerly device. Cooper has charming chemistry with McAdams in individual scenes, but their relationship never quite gels. And an unkempt Murray appears to have been given free rein to simply goof off through his scenes, making the pic’s already befuddling military intrigue subplot even more surreal.
Despite all these faults, the film isn’t entirely unpleasant. Alec Baldwin gets to unleash his most full-throated bellow as a dyspeptic general. Cooper and Krasinski have a pantomimed conversation that’s quite funny. And Stone and Murray stage a dance-off to Hall and Oates that’s appealing for reasons which should be self-explanatory, even if it might as well have been shot at the wrap party, for all the sense it makes to the narrative.
Production design, camerawork and art direction are all topnotch, and the film showcases a bevy of beautiful island landscapes with nary a swimming pool nor a beach resort in sight. Hawaiian folk music supplements Crowe’s predictable classic rock selections on the soundtrack well enough, and a score from Sigur Ros offshoot Jonsi and Alex is appropriately transporting.