Bit by bit our planet is being sold to ultrawealthy individuals. They drill, they frack, they drain lakes and aquifers to fill their Olympic-size pools—and in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, one attempts to dispatch a satellite into space with potentially nefarious intent, and with the unwitting help of the U.S. military. The sky belongs to our imaginations, damn it, not to billionaire megalomaniacs. But all it takes is one man amid this crisis of conscience to save the world. Of course, it never hurts if he’s in love.
As these battles rage onscreen and off-, writer-director Crowe fights a war of his own, a hard-fought struggle against cynicism. The opening salvo was fired in 1989 with the release of Say Anything . . . , a movie that’s long been forgiven any sappiness because it’s charming, it’s quotable, and it resonated with its target audience in a way that’s made it a permanent pop-culture fixture. When the ingenue, Diane Court (Ione Skye), learns that her father has been bilking the residents of his retirement home, she’s forced to come to terms with the knowledge that her dad isn’t the infallible figure she loved and admired. Diane’s father is a confirmed cynic, mistrustful of the pure and innocent love she shares with her high school classmate and noted underachiever Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack). And even though Lloyd following Diane, the class valedictorian, to England, where she’s won a fellowship, is probably a terrible idea, budding cynics in the audience were won over—Crowe was off to a running start.
In 1996 he released Jerry Maguire, with Tom Cruise as a sports agent who overcomes indoctrination into a greedy industry, not to mention his own world-weary cynicism, to create a future for himself and a pouty-lipped single mom. Cruise’s “You complete me” speech is remembered now for the heroine’s climactic one-liner “You had me at hello,” but in fact it begins with a misty-eyed Jerry pointing out that we live in a “cynical world,” the implication being that he’s risen above it. The film was a popular sensation, nominated for several Oscars (best picture, best screenplay, best editing, and Cruise as best actor, with Cuba Gooding Jr. victorious as best supporting actor).
So it’s no wonder Crowe borrows from the Jerry Maguire playbook in making Aloha. Bradley Cooper stars as Maguire type Brian Gilcrest, a contractor of some sort and a former NASA employee with a checkered history in both business and pleasure. Brian is a playboy, his laptop covered in stickers to remind him of the places he’s been (and the women he’s slept with). He was also badly injured and disfigured (OK, he’s got a mangled toe) by a bombing in Kabul after double-crossing his boss, the aforementioned billionaire megalomaniac Carson Welch (Bill Murray). Thirteen years earlier Brian was stationed in Honolulu and had a nice thing going with a sweet, pretty woman named Tracy (Rachel McAdams), but then he blew it because he was incapable of settling down. When Brian returns to Hawaii to help Welch launch his own satellite, he’s confronted with his past mistakes—as well as a potential future with the spunky air force pilot Allison Ng (Emma Stone), who’s been assigned to hover around him like a gnat. That’s where things get fuzzy.
This has been said elsewhere, but it bears repeating: Aloha is a very odd, confusing, and convoluted movie. It’s shot weirdly. It’s edited bizarrely. It feels like something that’s been sliced and diced, with bits of film that were plot-pertinent left on the cutting-room floor. Even if Aloha were well made in a technical sense, it would still be a weird heap of patriotism, astronomy, and Hawaiian folklore, piled atop a pat and predictable love story. Its message is something like: the sky is magical, Hawaii is magical, and love is magical. It doesn’t convincingly communicate any of these things.
Welch has ordered Brian to negotiate with a Hawaiian-nationalist leader, Bumpy (played by an actual Hawaiian-nationalist leader named Bumpy), and arrange a land deal that will allow for the construction of a new “pedestrian gate.” The phrase pedestrian gate is repeated so often that we can infer it’s important (to the military? to Carson?), though apparently it’s not important enough to bother explaining. Whatever—it’s only a device to get Brian paired up with Allison. But maybe she’s not all business after all. Following their first meeting, Allison has an effusive phone conversation with her mother—which Brian listens in on from the adjacent motel room—about what a broken sad sack of a man he is; cut to a shot of Cooper swallowing hard with an audible “gulp.”
The next day they drive off in a Jeep on their diplomatic mission to the mountain village where the nationalists live. They bicker and snipe during the tense journey, which turns into a lengthy hike—so lengthy, in fact, that they have time to grow on one another. Toward the beginning, Brian shouts at her about how he’s a lone wolf and Allison stomps after him like an angry cartoon, calling him a cynic. By the evening’s end, during a ukulele jam at a luau, they’re already exchanging amorous glances. “The sky has a lot to say tonight,” Bumpy tells Brian. “Stick around and you’re going to skin your knees on eternity.”
We’re repeatedly told that Brian is a gruff cynic, but the person we’re shown doesn’t fit that mold, which is part of the Crowe format: someone overcomes his cynicism and can finally achieve happiness, and engender happiness in another person. (I say “his” because, Lloyd Dobler aside, the cynics in Crowe’s movies are more often men and the blind optimists more often women.) There’s a fine line between skepticism and cynicism—Crowe implies that the military might have exercised a little more of the former in its dealings with Carson Welch. But Welch is a cynic, driven by mistrust of others and the world. Crowe’s protagonists consistently prove that people can change if they’re willing, and that love can prevail. Ten films into Crowe’s directing career, his fixation with cynicism has begun to feel targeted, like an indictment of an audience caught rolling its eyes. Watching Aloha, I’m surprised I didn’t sprain mine. v