Published May 29, 2015How you feel about Aloha will depend on your reaction to the following story — in the wake of the Sony leak, a Gawker story had a report from a disastrous test screening of the film: "Those with less education have been responding better to the movie at each of the three screenings to date." Fast-forward to a TV spot for the film this week calling it "the smartest comedy of the summer." That hilarious overcompensation is Aloha in a nutshell, and whether you find that sort of thing charming or irritating will say a lot about how much you enjoy the film. Aloha just wants you to like it so darn bad. The film is a mess, but its insistence on being 100 different movies at the same time makes it fascinating. The problem with Aloha (and with all Cameron Crowe movies post-Almost Famous), is that it wants to be too many things, but is only really good at being an exercise in abstract star-power charm from its ensemble.
Aloha wants to be a contemplative drama about time and family. It also wants to be a Billy Wilder-esque throwback screwball comedy. It also wants to be a socially conscious work about the commercialization of Hawaiian mysticism and the struggle of Native Hawaiians. It also wants to be about the struggle of veterans and the militarization of outer space. It is also a Christmas movie. It is none of those things, but it's also all of those things at the same time.
Trying to make sense of the film's narrative can be a challenge: Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) is a disgraced former serviceman, now working for a private defense contractor (Bill Murray). He goes to Hawaii to oversee a satellite launch and convince the local Native Hawaiians to bless a new gate for the launch. Meanwhile, he's paired with Allison Ng (Emma Stone), the military supervisor in charge of babysitting him during the trip and the two begin a romance. He also spends time with an old ex-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) who is now married to another soldier (John Krasinski). There are military subplots and family drama subplots and a few ancient Hawaiian gods even make an appearance every now and then.
This is a profoundly baffling movie, a relic of '90s star vehicles that tried to be everything for everyone at once, something Crowe perfected with his bloated Jerry Maguire.
And yet, there are moments where none of this seems to matter, where the film reveals itself at its most abstract, in which it's never clear why gorgeous people are yelling at each other, but they sure seem to be doing it in an appealing way. Think of Aloha like the rom-com version of January's Blackhat. Much like Mann's (unfairly) derided fever dream of a techno-thriller, this is an aging Crowe at his most nonsensical and hallucinatory, but without the digital realism that made Blackhat one of the year's essential films. All of the elements of a standard Crowe film are there: the once-brilliant career man forced to take a second look at life, the condescendingly trite Manic Pixie Dream Girl, musings on life scored to the best pop songs in history, bizarre employments of awkward magical realism, and an aching sense of melancholy.
But the plot is entirely incoherent. For most of the film it's unclear what is going on and impossible to tell what characters are doing and why they're doing those things. This is practically unheard of in rom-coms, which makes Aloha fascinating to watch just for its incoherence. It's never clear why Gilcrest is considered a failure in the military. It's never clear why his ex-girlfriend's husband never speaks. It's never clear why there's all this secrecy surrounding the launch of a new satellite or what its purpose is (or what Bill Murray is even supposed to be doing in this film).
Aloha works brilliantly as an exercise in being charming, while never being clear on why we should be charmed in the first place. This is mostly thanks to the wonderful star power charisma of Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone. The film is all pleasant, soft surfaces, an extended travel ad for Hawaii. Crowe's script has characters waxing awkwardly philosophical without any of it ever meaning anything, which contributes to this weird distancing effect the film has. If the film is supposed to be about celebrating the laid-back state of mind Hawaii has to offer, why are its characters screaming at each other all the time? Why are they talking so fast? Aloha is a film at constant war with itself, but is also the perfect example of a film that coasts by on charm alone, moreso than any film in recent memory. Made up of pure, beautiful and empty surfaces, it's the type of film your parents will love and forget about by the time they drive home.