TVAndMovies

"Aloha" Is The World's Most Bewildering Romantic Comedy

It's got a gorgeous setting and a great cast that includes Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, and Rachel McAdams. But here's where Aloha loses its way.

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Say Anything... is a pop culture milestone — John Cusack, standing with the boombox over his head, is one of the '80s most enduring images. Jerry Maguire? Infinitely quotable. And Almost Famous, the best of Cameron Crowe's big-hearted bunch, is so earnest and open that it repels cynicism like a force field, offering up a fervent tribute to being one of the uncool. Though at this point, Crowe may be experiencing not just a few bad years, but an entire bad decade, he's more than earned his place in the sincere-cinema pantheon with this earlier work, including Singles and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which he didn't direct but adapted from a book he wrote toward the end of his precocious journalist days.

This is why Aloha, which arrives in theaters already notorious thanks to leaked Sony emails signaling serious internal displeasure with the movie, is so goddamn bewildering. It's not bad so much as alien, like a romantic comedy made by someone who's researched human behavior but had very few brushes with it in person. It has a strong cast — Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, and John Krasinski — and a familiar Crowe-type story about a disgraced man finding redemption, thanks, in part, to the love of a wide-eyed woman. But the actual details are all totally confounding, from the reason Cooper returns to Hawaii to why he left over a decade before to what his deal is in the first place to the exchanges of dialogue that are supposed to be fast and flirty, but instead feel like something out of Mad Libs. Crowe, who wrote and directed Aloha, seems to have forgotten how to make a movie. Here's a closer look at its weirdness.

Bradley Cooper is disillusioned by his job, which is totally incomprehensible.

Neal Preston / Columbia Pictures

"There was a time I knew everything in the sky," Cooper's character, Brian Gilcrest, says in Aloha's opening monologue, He goes on to describe how he grew up, joined the military, then left it after the 2008 recession to take a sell-out defense contractor job — a job that remains mystifying for the entire run of the movie, but that apparently involves a lack of looking upward. Brian works for an eccentric billionaire named Carson Welch (Murray), and at various times seem to be a fixer, an engineer, a computer hacker, a mercenary, and a thief. He's also a public relations whiz, since when the movie begins he's been tasked with returning to Hawaii after a rough stretch in Afghanistan in order to persuade real separatist independence movement leader Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele (playing himself) to bless a pedestrian gate.

If it seems tough to hang the plot of a movie on this minor PR gesture, Aloha does make an abrupt turn toward the end into being a film about how private companies are untrustworthy, inadequate replacements for government-funded space programs — fair enough, but also nothing to do with what the movie, until that point, has been about. There's no way to understand Brian's disillusionment when it's impossible to understand what he's doing in the first place. Meanwhile, Danny McBride and Alec Baldwin play military higher-ups who've been transformed into corporate babysitters, but who are mainly concerned about Brian's romantic interest in Allison Ng (Stone), the officer who's been assigned to work with him while he's in town.

Emma Stone plays a fighter pilot who's one-quarter Native Hawaiian and one-quarter Chinese.

Neal Preston / Columbia Pictures

Aloha has already gotten preemptive flak for its lack of diversity and its appropriation of Hawaiian culture to tell the story of how a white dude gets his groove back. That flak is not unearned, though these points don't come close to covering its many problems. The movie has an awareness of the state's history and its makeup, but nevertheless tells a story that leaves most of its characters of color in the background. Its approach to Hawaii might be best described as uneasy and misguided if well-meant, from the kid (Jaeden Lieberher) who's obsessed with local myths and insists that Brian is the god Lono to the way that Kanahele and the Nation of Hawai'i are used as shortcuts for authenticity, mysticism, and the moral high ground. But strangest of all is that the movie has Stone playing a character who's a quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese and who talks about it all the time — lily-white Emma Stone, with her big green eyes, flashing a picture of parents who look nothing like her and sitting in on a song with some native musicians.

It's an utterly bemusing choice. Stone's an extremely charming actress, but giving her a light tan in no way turns her into a convincing mixed-race character, and she's just not up for serving as a conduit of Hawaiian culture — the main one in the movie, which shows how deep its connection to credibility actually goes. Besides, Stone has a tough enough task navigating a part that has her starting out all business but crumbling in Brian's presence like so much tissue paper, seeing tarnished greatness in him after a brief exchange in which he turns down her offer of a drink. Allison is written around these strong ideas — she's a geekily enthusiastic fighter pilot who's matter of fact about her job intimidating potential dates — but her place in the script turns out to be the depressingly standard one of helping a guy get back in touch with his inner greatness.

The flirty banter is borderline unintelligible.

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"Why don't you just have what you want?" Rachel McAdams, who plays Brian's ex-girlfriend Tracy Woodside, says to him when he arrives at her house for dinner. It's an awkwardly worded offer of hospitality that allows Brian to counter with "Do you have what you want?" — referring to Tracy's life with her military husband Woody (John Krasinski) and two kids (Lieberher and Danielle Rose Russell). Aloha is filled with fast-paced, clever-ish but not actually clever exchanges like this, particularly between Tracy and Brian, whose first meeting in 13 years is made up of dueling non sequiturs. "Will you stop getting more beautiful?" he asks, and she responds by telling him he has to meet her kids, which isn't really a brush-off, any more than what he said was a come-on. Also, her husband is right there, having flown Brian in in the first place.

Aloha has the rhythms of a screwball comedy without having the dialogue to match it. Fittingly, one of its best conversations involves no words at all, featuring a character whose introduction the movie unfortunately fumbles. It still works well enough that Aloha tries the trick again almost immediately afterward, in a scenario where the silence makes no sense at all, with another character who you'd think would have many questions, and who's not at all served by the quirk of the scene's staging.

The movie constantly tells you about its hero's specialness without ever showing it.

Neal Preston / Columbia Pictures

Brian is supposed to be returning to Hawaii after more than a dozen years away — a long time! — but everyone else in the movie acts as if they've been on pause that whole time, or if not, have spent a lot of the interval talking and thinking about him. Everyone knows Brian or knows of him, but it's never really clear why he's so memorable, why Tracy's son would plead for him to come over for dinner, why Allison acts like she's meeting a childhood hero, why Woody gives off the vibe of a guy who'd be helpless to keep his marriage intact if Brian made a move on his wife. Brian likes space. He's worked on some sciencey projects. He's played by Bradley Cooper. He's not the long-awaited fulfillment of a Hawaiian arrival myth.

Crowe has made movies before about men who've flamed out and who are working toward a comeback, in Jerry Maguire, in Elizabethtown. But Aloha is the most garbled version of this story, from the nature of the flameout itself to the roles Brian's love interest, ex, and "old stomping ground" play in his redemption. It's a movie that treats its world as something that's only there to help its protagonist find himself, which is evidence enough that it's time for Crowe to figure out a new story to tell.