At the start of Stefan C. Schaefer’s “Aloha Surf Hotel,” Tai Alonzo (played by stand-up comedian Augie Tulba) has hit rock bottom. Alonzo, a one-time surf legend-turned-college-student, has just lost his support from a university, is unemployed, has a daughter to support and a van with everything he owns being towed away. His one shot at redemption lies in becoming a surf instructor at a locally owned hotel, which is on the brink of closing.
This locally made independent film, beautifully shot on Maui by Dan Hersey and flush with local talent, is an underdog comedy with a warm center. Despite being fairly wholesome, it’s not above a scene where someone gets a tennis ball hurled into their crotch. It’s also not without imperfections, as the screenplay hits some choppy waters and is clumsy at times.
What keeps this charming crowd pleaser going is a winning performance by Tulba, whose forceful comic persona is well served here. Tulba wisely doesn’t try to make the character lovable but instead honestly taps into Alonzo’s never-failing persistence. Alonzo is the kind of man who seemingly must fight through every moment of his life, but Tulba somehow conveys a tender heart and never resorts to making him merely angry.
It’s obvious from the beginning how good the casting is- when Alonzo’s home/mobile unit is towed away, you laugh, even as its heartbreaking. Tulba’s wired performance is exactly what this movie needs. He throws himself into the role (often literally) and visibly relishes the opportunity to go for broke in his first ever leading role. Tulba (also known by his stage name, Augie T) is such a natural for his own starring vehicle, it’s a wonder it took this long for him to find one.
There are some great running gags, involving intrusive wind surfers, the hotel’s legacy as a haven for celebrities and a mainland couple suffering through a bumpy “babymoon.” The scenes that had me dying with laughter involve a broadcast on a small Hawaiian TV station, which is constantly being erupted by random visitors. There’s also an agreeably silly and utterly nonsensical bit where Alonzo manages to set up an elaborate trap for anyone defacing a wall with graffiti; its right out of a Road Runner cartoon and doesn’t make much sense but it made me laugh all the same.
For every joke that doesn’t land (like a battle with a pig that somehow doesn’t get the easy laughs that it should), there’s a dozen more waiting in the next scene. While the gags are hit and miss, Tulba and the ensemble cast keep the goodwill going.
Matt Corby’s scenes as Alonzo’s best friend are consistently hilarious- his character is amusingly drawn and Corby has a great rapport with Tulba.
Leave it to veteran character actor Branscombe Richmond to inject a true center to the film, as he brings a tenderness and lived-in authenticity, playing a man keeping a family dynamic while suffering the presence of fools on a daily basis. Directed by Stefan C. Schaefer, who also wrote the script (based on a story he conceived with Jonathan Stern), “Aloha Surf Hotel” is an extension of his 2016 TV movie, “Surf Break Hotel” (Richmond appears in both versions, in the same role).
Playing an employee of the hotel who has serious skills hitting the waves, Taiana Tully is a real charmer and a major star in the making. Likewise, Shawn Mokuahi Garnett, best known for playing Flippa on the new “Hawaii 5-O,” is a scene stealer- Garnett is playing an ancillary character but has the comic chops to maximize his every appearance.
There’s also a charming cameo from Fairai Richmond (who also served as the second unit director) as a flirtatious deliveryman (yet another character/ subplot that should have played a bigger part in the story). Alex Farnham plays Shiv, a fiendish yoga instructor and one of the film’s central antagonists. He’s a bit much, even in a movie this broad and a little of him goes very long way. Being made on Maui, the film wouldn’t earn its local cred without a Kathy Collins cameo.
There are too many endings and a few rushed developments that wind up dead ends. Rather than giving Alonzo a chance to showcase his many scholastic abilities (ala “Back to School”), the story neglects to explore some sharp comic potential and makes a beeline for the big wrap-up.
Inevitably, this will be compared to the kind of zany, character-driven comedies that Adam Sandler still makes (when he’s not starring in prestige dramas) and the comparison is complimentary. I’ve never given the cartoonish logic of “The Wedding Singer” or “Happy Gilmore” much thought afterward and the same applies here. The just-go-with-it attitude of Tulba’s character applies to the movie overall.
Perhaps the film will prove a striking footnote for Tulba, who was just recently elected to the position of County Council. As an entertainer-turned-movie-star-turned politician, he has nothing to worry about- this is no “Bedtime for Bonzo” (for the youngsters, that’s a Reagan reference).
This is mostly family friendly (mostly, because of a bit involving bondage, which might be hard to explain to a small child). For young audience members, the “grown up” jokes will likely soar over their heads. Zany, loose and light, this offers a nice message on taking pride in who you are and making the most of the skills you’ve applied in life.
“Aloha Surf Hotel” likely won’t be remembered as a reflection of its era, as the comic formula on hand goes all the way back to the silent era. However, what it offers overall is actually quite valuable; Schaefer has made an engaging and funny movie in a time when we all could really use a good laugh.
Aloha Surf Hotel premieres at the 2020 Hawaii International Film Festival. A theatrical release is forthcoming.