Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cameron Crowe heads for Hawaii with the clumsy but heartfelt Aloha

Cameron Crowe tells love stories. It’s about all he does, really. Most of the writer-director’s movies, from the teen classic Say Anything to his Grunge-era date flick Singles to the quotably potent Jerry Maguire, pivot around literal romances. When the focus isn’t on boys meeting girls, it’s still affection—for people, for places, for things, especially for music—that drives his work. That’s why even a bad Cameron Crowe movie can earn a smile or two. There’s just something infectious, in a proudly uncool kind of way, about the sincerity of the man’s convictions. He broadcasts his big, sloppy feelings like a teenage boy lifting a boombox over his head.

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Aloha, the filmmaker’s latest blast of uncut earnestness, is closer to a bad Cameron Crowe movie than a good one. Set against the scenic splendor of Hawaii, and under a starry sky everyone keeps lovingly gazing into, the film never quite makes the case that its hero, a fallen dreamer played by Bradley Cooper, is worth falling for. That’s a big problem in a drama built on romantic rapport, and as a portrait of a broken man redeemed by the love of a good woman, Aloha often stumbles. Yet there’s enough passion here—for the culture of Hawaii, for the history of NASA—to prevent a fiasco of Elizabethtown proportions.

Not that the film doesn’t court comparisons to that self-indulgent career lowlight. Cooper, like Orlando Bloom before him, has been cast as a down-on-his-luck pretty boy returning to a significant place from his past, where a spunky love interest helps ease him out of his funk. Following an injury in Afghanistan, defense contractor Brian Gilcrest (Cooper) heads for Hawaii to oversee a private satellite launch, the brainchild of eccentric billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray). Brian has to earn the blessing of a nationalist leader (Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, playing himself), but his problems are as much personal as professional. After all, he’s drifted back into the orbit of the one that got away, Tracy Woodside (Rachel McAdams), who broke off their engagement about a dozen years prior and is now married with two kids. While sorting through that ancient baggage, Brian also struggles to resist the charms of Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a boundlessly enthusiastic Air Force pilot charged with shadowing him during his stay on the island chain.

Thankfully, Aloha doesn’t devolve into a cut-and-dry love triangle: Crowe is smart enough not to pit his two female leads against each other, opting instead to keep the will-they/won’t-they tension between Cooper and Stone. The stars settle nicely into their roles—he turning up the wounded-nice-guy smolder, she radiating a lust for life—and there’s a certain old-fashioned, even screwball charm to the courtship. But Crowe cuts corners in establishing their chemistry: Instantly and inexplicably smitten with her charge, Allison emerges from the same fantasy factory that produced the Kirsten Dunst character in Elizabethtown, for whom this very site coined the Manic Pixie Dream Girl title. Likewise, Brian and Tracy rarely interact like people who haven’t seen each other for 13 years; she’s especially quick to overshare about her marriage to Woody (John Krasinski), a taciturn military man whose failure to communicate is played for both drama and cornball comedy. (At first, Krasinski seems an odd choice for the strong and silent type, until one remembers the wordless wonders he performed on The Office.)

Perhaps the energy Crowe could have expended on shaping believable characters went instead to the cultural context. Set in the last days of December, the plot itself is something of a Christmas tree, with individual obsessions hung like ornaments on its branches. Fears that the film may have whitewashed its tropical backdrop were premature, as Aloha gushes over everything from the natural wonders to the folklore to the art of Hawaii. This being a Cameron Crowe movie, music is naturally also a through-line: The filmmaker carefully curates his soundtrack—an original score by Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi alternates with native slack-key folk standards and Elvis tunes—while defining his characters through their musical hangups. Crowe even finds room for a totally superfluous scene of Bill Murray and Emma Stone dancing to Hall & Oates, because why wouldn’t he?

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Speaking of Murray, not even that deadpan comic genius can salvage the movie’s chief subplot, in which Cooper’s disillusioned stargazer, having sold his expertise (and soul?) to the private sector, wrestles with the ethics of “buying the sky.” Crowe has always had an odd, sometimes refreshing habit of affording his characters unconventional occupations, and Aloha takes the Jerry Maguire route of tying Brian’s personal redemption to his professional choices. In this case, however, that leads to a totally absurd climax—a rocket launch that becomes a grand gesture of romantic sacrifice. It’s as dumb as that sounds, but also weirdly endearing, at least for those who see something of value in the filmmaker’s heart-over-head creative logic. Only Cameron Crowe, perhaps, would think to make a satellite look like a boombox, pulsating with sound and feeling.

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