‘Aloha’: Film Review

True aloha spirit means not having to try this hard

Bradley Cooper plays a jaded defense contractor who rediscovers his inner idealist when he returns to Hawaii.

If one thing is clear in the deeply confused Aloha, it’s Cameron Crowe’s affection for the Hawaiian landscape and native culture. His off-the-tourist-track look at Honolulu abounds with intriguing views of unexpected terrain and offers a glimpse of the indigenous population’s independence movement. All of which suggests a far more compelling movie than the muddled redemption story he’s made.

Taking something of a chance, Crowe centers his narrative on a most unlikely hero: a defense contractor. Bradley Cooper puts his baby blues and conspicuous likability to work in the role, playing a lapsed idealist who gradually reconnects with his higher instincts and island mana, or spiritual energy, after he returns to Oahu. Spurring the healing process are a former girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) and a new love interest (Emma Stone). It’s a triangle built on down-to-earth dazzle. But with the screenplay’s strained whimsy and pathos, not to mention its unpersuasive, at times incoherent musings on the politics of space exploration, Crowe squanders the star power at hand. 

As with another major miss by the writer-director, 2005’s Elizabethtown, the new film has the awkward feel of a repository for everything but the kitchen sink. The chemistry is mostly forced, the story without an emotional core. And though Crowe’s facility for language can be striking, here it never moves beyond self-consciousness. The cast will entice audiences, but Aloha looks destined for a relatively quick hello-and-goodbye in theaters.

Deplaning on an airstrip at Hickam Field, the Honolulu Air Force base, Cooper’s Brian Gilcrest finds himself literally between two women as the film begins. On one side is his official handler, Air Force pilot Allison Ng (Stone), a bright-eyed, overeager and overwritten go-getter. On the other side is his ex, forensics chief Tracy Woodside (McAdams).

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Though they haven’t spoken in 13 years and she’s the married mother of two tweens, Tracy pulls him back into their unresolved romantic business with a jarring urgency, venting freely about her uncommunicative husband, Woody. A miscast John Krasinski is required to take the running joke of Woody’s laconic behavior from contrived to absurd. But his is hardly the only story strand to reach an unsatisfying conclusion.

Woody might eye Gilcrest warily, and General Dixon (Alec Baldwin, in angry-boss mode) might not be a fan, but Danny McBride’s second-in-command (a thoroughly underdeveloped role) welcomes him warmly. Gilcrest was once a hero at Hickam, before he decamped to the mercenary “gray side,” as he explains in halfheartedly apologetic voiceover.

He’s being given another chance by gazillionaire industrialist Carson Welch (an entertainingly eccentric Bill Murray). It emerges in unconvincing bits and pieces, including an ill-advised flashback, that they’d let each other down, and how, in Kabul. But now Welch and the military are depending on Gilcrest’s friendship with a local Hawaiian leader to smooth the way for the entrepreneur's Hickam-based space program.

Independence movement leader Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, a descendant of Hawaii's King Kamehameha, plays himself in a scene whose documentary aspects — it was filmed at the sovereignty movement’s mountain village — are the backdrop for gently comic negotiations over land use, as well as some lovely slack-key guitar playing by Ledward Kaapana. Unfortunately, it’s also occasion for more self-congratulatory overexuberance from Stone’s Ng, who likes to point out that she’s a quarter Hawaiian.

The philosophical divide between Gilcrest and Ng is as artificial as their intended repartee, and an obvious setup for his eventual about-face. For him, space programs are strictly business; for her, they’re about protecting the sanctity of the skies. Crowe does, however, make good use of their contrasting experiences during the drive home from Kanahele’s village, when they have an encounter on the night road: She considers it a sacred vision, while he chalks it up to something more prosaic.

Other references to Hawaiian mythology are clunky, however sincere. Tracy’s son (Jaeden Lieberher) is obsessed with the subject and pointedly identifies Gilcrest with the god Lono — echoing the hope that Tracy attaches to his return. Despite a few overstated exchanges, McAdams brings a wistful, believable confusion to her role. 

If Aloha’s earthbound elements are uneven, its rocket-launch aspects are downright confounding. The movie enters a weird orbit around covert missions and weaponized payloads. In the strangest sequence, Crowe bares his rock ’n’ roll heart — the passion that made Almost Famous such an affecting portrait of fandom — and unleashes a digital collection of pop-culture artifacts as an antidote to the military-industrial complex. Whether as tech coup or crucial turning point for his main character, the scene feels desperately off-key.

Yet even when the plot pushes too hard, abetted by busy handheld camerawork, Crowe’s use of actual locations and Clay Griffith’s astute production design have the ring of authenticity. Early in the film, the Hickam Officers’ Club is well used for a party scene promising high-wire emotional entanglements.

But they never quite materialize. Cooper’s effortless charm notwithstanding, Gilcrest is a good-guy cipher from beginning to end. The movie’s final redemptive gesture — though beautifully played by Danielle Rose Russell, as Tracy’s hula-dancing daughter — only reinforces the sense of posturing in most everything that precedes it.

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Regency Enterprises, LStar Capital, RatPac Entertainment, Scott Rudin Productions, Vinyl Films
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Jaeden Lieberher, Danielle Rose Russell, Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele
Director: Cameron Crowe
Screenwriter: Cameron Crowe
Producers: Scott Rudin, Cameron Crowe
Executive producers: Ilona Herzberg, Eli Bush, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Eric Gautier
Production designer: Clay A. Griffith
Costume designer: Deborah Lynn Scott
Editor: Joe Hutshing
Composer: Jónsi & Alex
Casting director: Francine Maisler

Rated PG-13, 105 minutes