Is there anything more dispiriting than an idealist who has lost his way? “Aloha” is Cameron Crowe’s seventh film as a writer-director but only his second film in the last 10 years. In that fitful sabbatical, the heart-sore charms of “Say Anything” (1989), “Jerry Maguire” (1996), and “Almost Famous” (2000) have evolved into the inconsequentiality of “Elizabethtown” (2005) and “We Bought a Zoo” (2011). With the new film, Crowe’s unique touch — the generosity with which he views his characters, the human race, and the world in general — seems almost completely lost. It gives me no pleasure at all to report that a mess with good intentions is still a mess.
This despite one of the strongest casts Crowe has fielded. Bradley Cooper plays Brian Gilcrest, a hotshot who left the military after barely specified bad goings-on in Kabul and who now works for an amoral master-of-the-universe satellite tycoon played by — wait for it — Bill Murray. Brian lands in Hawaii to smooth things over with the native population so the tycoon can have his launch pad, only to run into his ex-girlfriend, Tracy (Rachel McAdams), who’s now married to stoic Air Force pilot Woody (John Krasinski). They have two children, Grace (Danielle Rose Russell) and Mitchell (Jaeden Lieberher); the latter is one of those wise misfit movie kids who carries a video camera everywhere and talks in fluent encyclopedia.
The wrench in Brian’s gears is his military escort, a hard-charging Air Force captain named Alison Ng, who we learn is one-quarter Hawaiian and one-quarter Chinese and who is played by the 100 percent vanilla Emma Stone. Stone is delightful, as always, but her character has been stitched together in a mad screenwriter’s lab: Alison is a tight-lipped martinet and a passionate romantic and a down-to-earth woman and a woolly-headed mystic (and a floor wax and a dessert topping). Stone and Cooper generate heat from scene to scene, but just as often he looks frightened as to who she’ll turn into next.
It’s easy to see what Crowe is going for here: the sort of morally grounded screwball romance typified by Howard Hawks’s 1939 classic “Only Angels Have Wings,” in which Cary Grant was bedeviled by Jean Arthur on one side and Rita Hayworth on the other. That film was tightly crafted. “Aloha” is, to put it kindly, the opposite. Crowe has always had a gift for dialogue and relationships that steer clear of Hollywood cliché; he knows how people talk, or how they’d like to. Anyway, he used to. Here entire scenes drift bumptiously along, the characters bantering arrhythmically while Crowe’s camera does wobbly loops around them.
The colorful supporting characters include a general played by Alec Baldwin, who’s funny, and a colonel played by Danny McBride, who’s not. The latter keeps doing weird things with his fingers, which makes as much sense as anything else in the movie. There’s a dubious plot about a dastardly secret payload the tycoon is sneaking aboard his satellite, but the movie’s not sure what to do with it, just as Murray has no idea what to do with his character. (Is he a villain? Crowe, to his credit, doesn’t do villains. So what is he, then?) Despite a cheerful appearance by native Hawaiian activist Denny “Bumpy” Kanahele as himself and a thick patina of island mythology spread over the proceedings, “Aloha” is as generic as its title. The islands exist solely as an exotic backdrop for the pretty Hollywood haoles to play in. Business as usual, and I never thought I’d say that about a Cameron Crowe movie.
He still has those rock connections from his youth, though, and the soundtrack of “Aloha” is stuffed with big gets (the Who, the Stones, Beck) and lovingly curated finds (the Blue Nile, a ton of Hawaiian music). The songs conjure up emotions, but they never fill the hole where a movie should be.
Watch the trailer: