It happens. Really talented directors sometimes step into the batter’s box, take a gigantic swing, and whiff. The only mystery is why it doesn’t happen more often. All of which is to say that you are about to read a lot of scathing reviews of Cameron Crowe’s latest film Aloha in the next couple of days that may or may not employ a lot of “Bad Lei” puns. But the unfortunate, inescapable truth is, the movie really is that terrible. It’s especially surprising considering the source. After all, Crowe is responsible for some of the most indelible rom-com highlights of the past 30 years. He put the boombox into John Cusack’s outstretched arms in Say Anything…, he penned Renee Zellweger’s “You had me at ‘hello’” line for Jerry Maguire, and he transformed Kate Hudson into the romantic gypsy dreamer Penny Lane in Almost Famous. Aloha wants to be all of those films transposed to the jasmine-scented paradise of Hawaii, but it just feels like Elizabethtown on downers. I didn’t believe a second of it.
Bradley Cooper stars as Brian Gilcrest, a former Air Force hotshot who’s sold his soul to work for a billionaire private-sector contractor played by Bill Murray. Despite his ladykiller blue eyes and irresistible charisma, he’s a fallen idealist in the midst of a midlife funk. His latest assignment for his amoral boss is to head to Hawaii, grease a few palms, and sweet-talk a reluctant tribal elder (real-life native leader Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele) into giving his blessing to a construction project built on sacred ground. At least, that’s his cover story. His real objective, it turns out, may be significantly more cavalier and shady.
Complicating Gilcrest’s visit are two women, who in their own ways challenge his compartmentalized emotional numbness. The first is his old girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) whom he walked out on 13 years earlier in a fit of commitmentphobia and is now married and has two kids. The second is a military escort (Emma Stone) whose clipped diction, whipcrack salute, and starched, by-the-book uptightness pretty much telegraph that she will learn to ease up in the reflection of his baby blues and find a way to teach Cooper’s wounded lone wolf to love again. It would be hard to find a love triangle built on wobblier legs.
None of the three leads are bad, per se. But it’s hard to make chicken salad out of lines like “I need you to believe in me” and “You sold your soul so many times nobody’s buying anymore.” I realize that dialogue like that isn’t a far way off from Jerry Maguire’s “You complete me.” But at least in that movie, it felt organic, as corny as it may have been. Here, it just feels like Crowe is pulling out his scratchy old Greatest Hits album. Making it all worse is how ineffectively Crowe uses his Hawaiian setting. It’s obvious that while working on Aloha’s script, Crowe fell in love with the islands and their people and customs. But he doesn’t do them – or his audience – any favors by larding the story with mystical Hawaiian mythology and sledgehammer-subtle symbolism. In the film, doors and windows blow open at pivotal moments to show us that spirits are at work. When the local elder is ultimately betrayed, he stands out in the rain looking at the heavens as if to imply that the Gods are crying. It’s pure Boomer sap.
Ultimately, Crowe’s exotic love story boils down to this question: Can Stone teach Cooper to love again and save his soul before it’s too late? Go ahead, take a wild guess. Better yet, don’t. She can and she does. I just saved you ten bucks. It’s said that in Hawaii, the word “Aloha” is a greeting that translates to both “Hello” and “Goodbye.” In this case, Aloha also means “Stay Away.” C-