As a rule, I ignore negative buzz about upcoming movies. For one thing, you never know the agenda behind those leaking damaging information about reshoots or bad test-screening scores. 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. 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. This thing is bad in the ways that only an ambitious, personal project can be. Not bad throughout—the first half is actually pretty decent—but when it goes south, the nosedive is irreversible. If the final product had been three hours long, maybe Crowe could have juggled all his different aspirations. But even then, I think this would have been a disaster.
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. Brian’s job is to oversee the launch and make nice with the native Hawaiians to quell any controversy. None of this plot busy-ness is particularly interesting, but you’ll be amazed how much running time it takes up.
The real Crowe-ish material concerns Brian’s encounter with his former love Tracy (Rachel McAdams), who lives in Hawaii with her two children and blandly handsome husband, an Air Force pilot named Woody (John Krasinski). Tracy never forgave Brian for breaking her heart, and they haven’t spoken since splitting, but both of them soon feel the old spark coming back. 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.
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. 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. 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. Aloha never achieves the inspired highs of Jerry Maguire, but Crowe keeps things bouncing along entertainingly enough.
And then the bottom falls out. Some activist groups (without having seen the film) have accused Aloha of whitewashing Hawaiian culture, but that’s not a fair complaint. 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.
No, what really torpedoes this thing is Crowe’s admirable insistence on biting off far more than he can chew. Not just another romantic-triangle comedy-drama from the Oscar-winner, Aloha also wants to be an indictment of U.S. foreign policy, a commentary on the commercialization of the military, and yet another of Crowe’s studies on personal ethics and redemption. None of this is done well, and there’s a precise moment in the film where everything falls apart. Characters stop acting the way they’ve behaved previously, and plot demands start dictating every interaction. Claiming no insider information, I have to wonder if a chunk of the movie got cut out: The two halves of this movie are so different that it feels like a crucial middle section has been lost to keep the running time down. (The whole thing’s only 105 minutes long, and yet it still goes on forever.)
In its second half, after the shift happens, Aloha gets worse and worse, as character motivations go by the wayside and unearned emotional moments get thrown at the audience willy-nilly. 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. You can’t hide behind explosions and spectacle here. (That said, we do get a third-act, effects-heavy showdown of sorts that makes zero sense and may be one of the dumbest finales I’ve seen in a while.)
In this well-intentioned train wreck, the performances mostly serve as a way for us to gauge how aware the actors are that their roles are incomprehensible. 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. These are attractive actors who never seem to be occupying the same space, as if they were beamed onto the set and had their controls flipped to “cutesy rapport.” (Her best moment is dancing to Hall & Oates with Murray, who brings his usual Zen-like charm to the proceedings.) As for McAdams, well, she’s pretty good at smiling wistfully, I suppose.
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. Throw Aloha on that pile. At a time when franchises are becoming even more dominant, we need someone like Cameron Crowe to help restore a little balance. Instead, he made this indigestible blob. Sometimes, the bad buzz isn’t just gossip: It’s fair warning.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.