Columbia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Produced by Cameron Crowe, Scott Rudin. Photographed by Eric Gautier. Edited by Joe Hutshing. Production designed by Clay A. Griffith. Costumes designed by Deborah Lynn Scott. Starring Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin.
Director Cameron Crowe likes to tell stories about people who feel big feelings; nothing less interests him. In Crowe’s universe, emotions are important, sweeping romantic gestures are to be savored, and cynicism is seen mainly as an enemy to be vanquished. His films use a lot of pop music, not because he wants to sell a soundtrack, but because he writes about people who happily live in a pop culture world. His movies are made with love and are always proudly about love: in Say Anything, he made a shot of John Cusack’s boombox-assisted declaration of affection instantly iconic, and in Jerry Maguire he added “You had me at hello” and “You complete me” to the cultural lexicon. And in Almost Famous, he told a story about a boy who loved both a girl and rock and roll, and had to swim through a sea of phonies that claimed to love those things, too.
Aloha, Crowe’s latest, is of course about love: love of the land, love of culture, and a romance that goes inextricably hand in hand with those. It’s a messy and unfocused movie, at times, but I enjoy the way Crowe does messy. It’s joyful, not frantic. He does a lot of plate-spinning, but every plate is there for a reason. His writing has a traditional structure, but his scenes often hum with the details of everyday life. Aloha sometimes feels like five different movies jostling for space, but I like each one of the movies he’s making.
Bradley Cooper plays Brian Gilcrest, a defense contractor that the military has loaned to Carson Welch, (Bill Murray) an eccentric telecommunications billionaire. Arriving in Hawaii, Gilcrest is tasked with brokering a deal with a descendant of Hawaiian royalty to bless the launch site, as a PR stunt. Some, however, take local traditions seriously, and that includes Capt. Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a fighter pilot who is one-quarter Hawaiian and is assigned to Brian as a military attaché. Ng is spritely and deeply spiritual, and she is repeatedly unfazed by Brian’s attempts to not make friends, do his job and leave. “You’re cynical, I get it,” she says, smiling, as if sizing up an opponent for a tennis match. They fall in love, because who wouldn’t? But Gilcrest does have baggage: an ex-wife, Tracy (Rachel McAdams) who is a nice woman with two nice kids, but she’s also a little sad, and more than willing to tell Gilcrest his own flaws. Meanwhile, Tracy’s new airman husband (John Krasinski) is the strong/silent type, but his body language says (among other things) “Go away.”
In addition to this assortment of characters there’s also conflict between those who respect the sacred traditions of Hawaii, and those who don’t (the movie shows the uneasy relationship the locals have with the mainland). And there’s a little class commentary, and some serious portents of Hawaiian prophecy. And there’s some big family issues to work out, and time for Gilcrest to figure if maybe he’s playing for the wrong team, and Bill Murray at his reserved and quirky best. And the satellite launch, and Alec Baldwin as a cartoonish mad-dog general, and Danny McBride as a sardonic colonel. There’s even a dance sequence between Stone and Murray set to Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” that doesn’t have much to do with anything, but I’m so glad it’s there.
Cooper and Stone generate huge chemistry in Aloha, which is unsurprising, but also crucial; not just because we have to believe their romance but because Crowe’s dialogue, in the wrong hands, can explode on contact—these two create characters that you buy saying these lines, even when they’re near-impossibly earnest. Crowe always swings big in terms of dialogue, character and theme, and at his worst he can miss, but at his best, like filmmakers from the golden age, he uses his formalist tendencies to cut right to the beating heart of something. And heart is key. Aloha is a second-tier work from a filmmaker who has greatness in him. It’s a little rambling, a little self-indulgent, maybe a little too twee. But it’s so darned likable and warm that it’s difficult to mind very much.