Few movies are less deserving of venomous pre-release controversy than writer/director Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy, “Aloha.” Considering the widely reported complaints directed at this film, I’m happy to report the film isn’t a shallow exploitation of Hawaii, as many wrongfully feared. Crowe’s film isn’t without its problems but, to get right to it, I liked it a great deal, and it has more to say about current day Hawaii than any mainstream Hollywood film before it.
Bradley Cooper stars as a disgraced defense contractor named Brian Gilchrest, who is sent to Oahu on a unique assignment. He’s been paired with a highly caffeinated air force pilot (Emma Stone) and must oversee a treaty between the military and a Hawaiian sovereignty activist (“Bumpy” Kanahele, playing himself rather well). If this goes through, Gilchrest not only stands to resurrect his declining reputation but find favor from a mysterious billionaire (Bill Murray). Meanwhile, he attempts to reconcile with his ex (Rachel McAdams), who has hooked up with a strong and silent type (John Krasinski).
From the very start, Crowe has made a love letter to Hawaii’s cultural richness and melting pot population. Not all of this works, particularly some brief, awkward, and ill-advised moments that reference menehunes and night marchers. Crowe’s aim is overreaching by trying to shape an unconventional tapestry into a romantic comedy but I admired how much he gets right. The sequence set inside the Nation of Hawaii village is unlike any in a mainstream movie and it comes early on. The topic of Hawaiian sovereignty, and the faces of those carrying the torch, isn’t something I expected from the director of “Jerry Maguire.” Crowe clearly takes the issue seriously and means for it to be a thematic jumping off point. The overall message is that we shouldn’t compromise ourselves or others for greater success. While Crowe’s classic theme of personal redemption wouldn’t seem to be an easy blend with Hawaiian social issues, his film winds up being more valuable (if messier) for taking chances and not simply providing a postcard facade of a tourism playground.
The casting of Stone, in a role seemingly intended for an Asian-American actress, is the sole point of pre-release controversy that is merited. Stone has been cast for her charm and name value but she’s visibly trying too hard to convey her character’s incessant pluckiness. We’re informed that her character is part Hawaiian and part Chinese, a quality that suggests Crowe is mindful of Maui’s mixed plate culture and population of rich ethnic heritage. In this case, however, it’s so obvious that either an unknown actress and/or someone who, frankly, looks the part would have been less distracting. Stone’s performance is the opposite of lazy or uncommitted but she’s as unlikely a fit for her role here as she was playing the savior of the Civil Rights Era in “The Help.”
There’s a big, special effects-driven climactic sequence that doesn’t derail the proceedings but, at best, seems on loan from “Gravity” (I don’t mean this as a compliment). While the cinematography is crisp, there are moments where the editing is a problem. Clearly, this was a longer film with a fuller narrative and should have remained that way.
Yet, there are so many great scenes and enjoyable performances, it’s easy to recommend. Cooper keeps up with Stone’s bubbly on-screen persona but his best scenes are with McAdams, who is typically strong and has a genuine chemistry with her former “Wedding Crashers” co-star. The triangle between Cooper, McAdams and Krasinski (who is touching in an unusual turn) comes across with warmth and maturity. Murray is ideally cast as an anything-goes eccentric and Alec Baldwin has a hilarious, stand-alone sequence where he dresses down Cooper (the scene is a nod to Baldwin’s milestone work in “Glengarry Glen Ross”).
The overly tidy wrap-up is very Hollywood but the final scene is a real beauty. I won’t describe it, though it involves a hula and two characters realizing for the first time who they are to each other. It’s so perfect, not just because of the emotional peak it hits, but how it validates the film’s overall theme of identity and taking part in the ohana we’re blessed with.
When the film’s title was finally announced this year, it initially seemed a poor fit. Having seen the movie, it feels right, as Crowe is not exploiting “aloha” as a tourism staple but as a multi-faceted word that means so much to those who speak it with love.
The key flaws on hand, namely Stone’s miscasting and some jarringly structured sequences, hurt the film. The latter quality makes me hopeful of a potential extended director’s cut. As it stands, Crowe’s film is near-great but the scenes that work are golden. Crowe hasn’t made a definitive film about Hawaii (a tall order for any filmmaker) but sheds light on the corruption of Hawaiian lands and the heart of its people.
As a comedy, “Aloha” is light and misshapen. Yet, here’s a big studio film with a rare sensitivity and respect for Hawaii. The problem is, Crowe needed more time to say everything on his mind.