Deep Focus: Aloha
Before a Los Angeles press screening of Aloha, writer/producer/director Cameron Crowe called it his “love letter to Hawaii.” Visually, that’s right. Cinematographer Eric Gautier matches his rapturous work for director Olivier Assayas (Something in the Air, Summer Hours) with fresh and energizing vistas of deep forests and dramatic shorelines. These moviemakers abhor lazy beach-movie imagery and focus on changeable atmospheres and sudden, enveloping mists. They conjure an aura that might feel magical if Crowe’s script weren’t constantly telling you how magical it is.
Aloha stars Bradley Cooper as aeronautics expert and military contractor Brian Gilcrest, Emma Stone as Captain Allison Ng, his Air Force liaison in Honolulu, and Rachel McAdams as his ex-girlfriend Tracy Woodside, now living with her pilot husband Woody (John Krasinski) and their two children near Hickam Field. Surrounding them with Hawaiian activists and musicians and a quirky supporting cast, including Alec Baldwin as an Air Force general and Danny McBride as his second-in-command, Crowe injects everything from marital stress to the rights of indigenous people and the dangers of privatizing space into a mystical romantic comedy. Midway through, Gilcrest reveals that he has a two-headed big toe, caused by a distracted surgeon. This movie, like that toe, is a jarring hybrid.
Crowe has cited Bill Forsyth’s eccentric pastoral Local Hero as the major influence on his last film, We Bought a Zoo (11). In Aloha he’s still striving to portray how a bracing change in environment can heal a damaged man. Gilcrest is a failed boyfriend and husband; his wife left him for a guy who made his fortune selling comic books. He ran out of ideals when the government slashed NASA’s budget and then scraped bottom as a mercenary in Afghanistan. He’s still not back in fighting trim after suffering near-fatal injuries in a missile attack near Kabul.
Crowe has become such a sentimental moviemaker that Gilcrest’s redemption plays like a foregone conclusion, and Hawaii, his old stomping ground, plays like Brigadoon. Aloha is so dependent on old movie tropes that there’s no suspense to Gilcrest’s romantic quandary. One female is positioned as an emotional casualty from his past (McAdams’s Tracy) and the other as his last gleaming hope for a happy, purposeful future (Stone’s Allison). Crowe’s idol, Billy Wilder, would have turned this movie’s bromides about closure into witticisms—or thrown them away. (It’s telling that Crowe’s favorite Wilder movie is his half-cynical, half-sappy official classic, The Apartment.)
McAdams and Stone are great casting: they’re immensely skillful and appealing, and you expect them to excel as riotous, quick-witted rivals. But their characters get along just fine, and they’re not really rivals at all. They both want whatever’s best for Gilcrest. The biggest complication comes from Tracy’s marriage—and even that’s no big deal, since before the movie starts, she’s fed up with her husband’s taciturnity. Allison’s military role as Gilcrest’s “watchdog” is an advantage, not an obstacle. It gives this golden-girl pilot the opportunity to close in on him. The roles as written are, to borrow a word from Crowe’s Say Anything…, “basic,” and, at times, demeaning.
Tracy is a font of conventional relationship wisdom. She hands Gilcrest the diagnosis that he’s a workaholic who creates work to escape real work. Alas, when it comes to judging her husband Woody, she needs Gilcrest to mansplain that he speaks volumes with body language. (It’s also unfortunate that Woody’s silences are initially and ultimately played for good, solid laughs, but in between are played for pathos.) Crowe hands Tracy a peculiar and off-putting introduction: while serving as an official witness to the debarkation of a flag-draped coffin, she catches sight of Gilcrest and trains her full attention on him. Is Crowe trying to show that daily tragedy can desensitize good, decent people? Or is this simply a clumsy example of ex-lovers locking eyes? Throughout, Crowe and editor Joe Hutshing go heavy on the close-ups, and McAdams does her best to hold them. After laboring in so many fuzzy or misconceived movies, she’s developed an awe-inspiring repertoire of tones and half-tones and an expert command of sliding emotional scales. She can’t compensate, though, for this script’s skimpy character strokes and clashing moods.
Aloha marks the first time that Stone got on my nerves, through no fault of her own. What in the zeitgeist has caused moviemakers to revive the stereotype of the grating career woman? Stone’s fast-tracked Air Force pilot is as wound up as Reese Witherspoon’s supercop wannabe in Hot Pursuit. You know she’ll eventually relax and (literally) let her hair down, but that just makes her smash-and-grab delivery and big-eyed expressions even worse. Allison, vocally proud of her one-quarter Hawaiian lineage, overflows with high-minded intentions for protecting native traditions and the integrity of the U.S. military. In one blessedly fresh and non-rhetorical scene, she jams with Hawaiian musicians on “Walmanato Blues,” and her exuberance is infectious. But Gilcrest barely shares that moment. Stone’s character may be a “fast burner,” but she can’t generate a spark with this burned-out case.
The way Crowe has shaped the movie, Gilcrest attracts women without lifting a finger—his reputation does the work for him. A macho wizard with an astounding command of physics, astronomy, engineering, and computer science, he’s scarred inside and out, but gals of all ages see him as a salvageable prize. It’s hard to make such a knotty and forbidding fellow seductive, and Cooper doesn’t rise to the task. He pours on the intensity instead of seeking enticing gestures or inventive, beguiling turns of phrase. Once again, the script lets him down. With Tracy he speaks in mundane double entendres, and with Allison, he’s reduced to mere entendre. He spits out his general professional approach: he goes hard, he goes deep, and sometimes he breaks things.
Like George Clooney’s Frank Walker in Tomorrowland, Gilcrest once believed in the purity, gallantry, and even the necessity of space exploration. Now he is so cynical and depleted that he’s ready to launch a rocket for a fundamentally untrustworthy billionaire, Carson Welch (Bill Murray), who wants to make the galaxy his oyster. Murray, always an inspired put-on artist, is an ideal choice to play a man whose reality and fantasy are equally outrageous. Whether Welch is coining a paradox or capering at a Christmas party, Murray’s acting is unpredictable and free. Cooper, though, must carry the burden of being Crowe’s surrogate in the drama. The moviemaker views Gilcrest as a throwback to baby-boomer idealism. (Crowe, at 57, got in on the tail end of all that; Cooper is only 40.) The grainy opening montage of Hawaii and the Air Force in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years is engaging and nostalgic, but it sets you up for an entirely different kind of movie. The only major character who embodies that kind of innocence is Allison. Even from her lips, high-minded defenses of the military and invocations of profound and colorful Hawaiian lore come off as artificial ingredients. Murray does better with his fake pearls of wisdom, including his statement of the movie’s theme: “The future isn’t just something that happens. It’s a brutal force with a great sense of humor and it will steamroll you if you’re not watching.”
Hawaii offers such an alluring, engulfing presence that you really want to believe, as Allison does, in the soulful power called mana, in Menehune (Hawaiian leprechauns), and in Nightmarchers, spirit warriors who emerge in moonlight. The only time you feel an otherworldly tingle is when Tracy’s 10-year-old son Mitchell (Jaeden Lieberher) sees Gilcrest as the personification of a playful god who shook the world of Hawaii’s fire goddess. Crowe is a superb director of young actors. Mitchell is already an aspiring filmmaker (“Hey, Spielberg,” Gilcrest calls to him at one point), and Lieberher manages to be precocious, not precious. Even better is Danielle Rose Russell as Tracy’s 12-year-old daughter, Grace, who is entrancing when she practices the hula and heartbreaking when she expresses uncanny blends of gladness and confusion as she studies Gilcrest studying her through her dance studio’s window.
Aloha is no dream-factory product. It’s a personal movie—just not a good personal movie. Even in the few effective scenes, Crowe uses his actors to convey fleeting or piercing emotions without building the characters to support them. You wonder why Gilcrest doesn’t realize that he could embarrass Grace by provoking a revelation at her hula class, especially if you’re moved by Russell’s performance. Crowe spends his energy building a latticework of suggestions and motifs that lead to predictable and/or maudlin outcomes. Tracy says she split up with Gilcrest 13 years ago because he failed to show up at a San Francisco vacation where she intended to announce momentous news. You immediately guess what it was—if you haven’t already. In a typically labored moment, Gilcrest glances at the Woodsides’ creaky back door. When Woody makes it part of the crowning line in a pleading love letter to his wife, Gilcrest says he never even noticed the door—a sign that he’s turned self-sacrificing and noble. In Aloha, Crowe’s fabled generosity toward his characters and actors becomes special pleading.
It’s ironic that a few Hawaiian activists have made headlines decrying this film as a whitewash of their native culture, based solely on the title and the trailer. The strongest moments in the entire movie belong to real-life Hawaiian independence movement leader Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele (playing himself). Gilcrest must negotiate land rights with his old friend Bumpy so that Murray’s loony-like-a-silver-fox billionaire can have enough room and access to build his space program. The negotiations are tough and funny, and the local entertainment is buoyant. But the same flaw mars this business subplot and the romance. When the Hawaiian leader warms to Gilcrest, you wonder what Bumpy could possibly see in him.