Cameron Crowe loves a good failure story, and specifically what happens after a disastrous fall from the top. If Crowe were a character in his own film, the fiasco of “Aloha,” and nearly all of his post-”Almost Famous” movies, would provide the perfect intro.
Unfortunately, “Aloha” is not part of some larger redemption narrative for Crowe (at least not yet). It’s just another fascinating mess from an earnest and occasionally excellent filmmaker who can’t seem to re-create the enveloping magic and charm of his earlier films. It’s an unfair standard for anyone, but it’s hard not to hope for the best from Crowe, even if his past few films have taught us otherwise.
“Aloha” was cut off at its knees from the start as one of the unwitting victims of criticism from sharp-toothed executives in last year’s Sony hack, leaving Crowe fans wondering just how bad the film could be. After all, he had a charming, of-the-moment cast, a compelling-on-paper story about a man reconnecting with a longtime ex while also falling for a pretty young thing and an idyllic location to work with.
And yet in execution, “Aloha” is a meandering, needlessly confusing cacophony of story, performance and spiritual blather. Not only does it feel inauthentic, it’s often downright alien.
The story, briefly, is about the once idealistic Brian (Bradley Cooper) who sold his soul to a military contractor (a nearly comatose Bill Murray) and has returned to Hawaii for a job. There, he’s forced to revisit his failed relationship with Tracy (Rachel McAdams), who’s since had two kids and married a man of few words (John Krasinski). He’s also been tethered to the bizarre Air Force pilot/potential love interest Allison Ng (Emma Stone).
How something that straightforward goes astray is a bit of a mystery. Crowe packs every moment with so many words, but very little coherent information. The discomfort of not knowing what’s going on rots the overall experience, especially when the odd satellite defense subplot takes over. It sometimes feels like half the movie is missing.
At one point, probably 30 minutes in, Brian and Ng are together, going somewhere. The two characters talk and bicker at rapid speed. But they’re not really talking to each other, at least in the way that any human might understand conversation to work with another human. It’s all cute turns of phrase and non-sequiturs. By the time they get to their destination — a settlement of native Hawaiians who want sovereignty — you’ve fully forgotten, or perhaps never understood, why exactly they are there. And it only gets more jumbled.
Part of the problem is Ng. Crowe has a knack for writing good female characters — Tracy comes pretty close — but the childlike Ng is not a person who has or will ever exist. The usually wonderful Stone, in a rare misstep, is lost here as the one-quarter Hawaiian F-22 pilot who calls Brian “sir” even after they’ve started to fall for each other. She speaks in a clipped, grating staccato that’s only ever softened when waxing poetic about her Hawaiian heritage and the spirituality of a clear sky. Her quirks are meant to charm. Unfortunately, they have the opposite effect.
There are some lovely moments of humor and depth that do succeed, including a long-lead joke that is used to brilliant effect in one of the final scenes. McAdams and Cooper also have wonderful chemistry and a deeply felt wistfulness over their romantic past. Their scenes together are the film’s rare bright spot and a reminder of Crowe’s unique strength as an idiosyncratic voice.
It’s not enough, though. “Aloha” either needed more focus or more time to say what it wanted to say. But perhaps this is the earnest failure Crowe needs to get back in gear.