The first three minutes of Cameron Crowe’s new film Aloha features a montage of old recordings showing a rich tapestry of native Hawaiian culture intercut with scenes of the space race and our expanding military presence in the sky. It appears to be setting up a movie whose central conflict will be around these diametrically opposed ideas: traditionalism vs expansion. But like this opening scene, Aloha is a jumbled mess of so many things that it ends up really being about neither. It is, in fact, a movie about not much of anything.
The film tells the story of Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) a former Air Force…pilot? IT guy? …something? It’s never really clear. Brian loves space, but left military service after he became disillusioned with the government’s priorities regarding NASA after massive cutbacks to the program in 2008. He ends up a military consultant with Carson Welch (Bill Murray), a billionaire who is using rockets and space efforts as a way to make some money. Gilcrest, back at work for the first time after being severely injured in Afghanistan, is sent home to Hawaii to negotiate the formal blessing of a new public airport terminal by the native sovereign nation.
While in Hawaii, Gilcrest reconnects with his old fling Tracy (Rachel McAdams), now married with two children, and forms an unexpected bond with the Air Force liaison sent to watch over him, Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone). The film attempts to juggle a budding relationship with Captain Ng, closure with his former girlfriend Tracy, mystical Hawaiian spirit legends or something, and messy corporate expansionists all at the same time. It fails completely at all of them.
Bradley Cooper is horribly miscast as Gilcrest. We’re told that Brian is a broken shell of a man who has lost his dreams, his “light”. He’s constantly told by his own friends that he looks like shit and is so pale. The problem is, we don’t actually see any of this. Brian Gilcrest looks like Bradley freaking Cooper. Still ripped from his bulking for American Sniper, Cooper plays the character with all the witty charming bro-ishness that has made him famous. The entire movie hinges on Gilcrest being this defeated man, who’s only working for Carson Welch because he’s lost all motivation. At one point he tells Emma Stone that this is the first time he’s been happy in years. But you never actually buy it. The secret to Gilcrest working as a character is he’s actually a complete and total asshole, but he’s just so damn likable that you’re always on his side.
Emma Stone brings her usual brilliance to the role of Allison Ng. She’s a plucky, always positive person that counteracts the negativity of Gilcrest (or at least the negativity we’re told about, but don’t see). But like Cooper, it’s another instance of strange casting. Ng is supposed to be a 1/4th Hawaiian, Chinese American woman. Yes, this person:
Stone looks like neither. I can kinda see what Crowe is trying to do here. It’s an interesting narrative angle, having a character that doesn’t look traditionally Hawaiian being a girl that’s fiercely proud of her Hawaiian heritage, as Ng is. It’s weird, however, that our only real Hawaiian character in a movie about Hawaii, doesn’t look at ALL Hawaiian.
These are just small problems compared to the absolute mess that is the script. As mentioned above, Crowe is attempting to juggle a bunch of different things all at the same time, but in doing so, fails at each of them. There are four different movies going on here:
- A movie examining the culture of Hawaii, including the more mystical nature of their belief system, contrasted to the cynicism of Gilcrest after losing his dream of space.
- A movie about corporate greed expanding into the one last untamed parts of the world (Space) and how this interplays with the original US expansion into Hawaii.
- A movie about a broken man who has fled every serious relationship he’s ever had being forced to confront one of his lost loves.
- A movie about a man who’s given up on his life and his dreams being spurred on by a new relationship with a plucky young Air Force captain who teaches him to dream/believe again.
These could all be interesting stories in their own right if done correctly, but none of them are. Instead they’re all mashed together into the same two hours, fighting for air. We’re forced to jump randomly from scene to scene at a desperate pace to cover off on each of these plots. The script doesn’t even make an effort to attempt to tie all these together into one coherent through-line. They’re all just out there, independently.
All this being said, the film is absolutely beautiful. There are moments when it manages to capture both the beauty of Hawaii and the native cultures and customs that make it such an interesting place. This is, I think, what drew Crowe to the project in the first place. He clearly wanted to both show off and honor Hawaii and its heritage. And in this aspect, I suppose, he partially succeeds.
The hardest thing about not liking Aloha is that I actually really wanted to. I usually enjoy Cameron Crowe and the passion he puts behind his projects. You can tell that he put the same amount of work into this film as well, it just didn’t work out this time. The cast, while weirdly chosen, is all great. There’s so much here that should, when combined make a great, emotionally resonant movie. But it just doesn’t. Aloha is bad. Pass on this one.