Monday, June 01, 2015

Aloha



Watching Cameron Crowe’s Aloha is disorienting and vaguely depressing, as if a favorite relative suddenly started telling offensive jokes at a family reunion. Actually there’s nothing overtly offensive about Aloha, and I wonder if those complaining about the lack of native Hawaiian representation in the film are aware that there is a subplot explicitly addressing the relationship between native Hawaiians and the U.S. military. (I don’t remember a similar story arc in The Descendants.) But Aloha is over-caffeinated and schizophrenic, a hybrid of romantic comedy, thriller (?) and drama of Man Getting S--t together. If, like me, you saw Say Anything at an age when it made a difference then it’s dismaying to watch the degree to which Crowe has apparently lost control of both pace and tone.

Brian Gilchrest (Bradley Cooper) is a military contractor with a checkered past - there are many references and a useless flashback to “Kabul” - who arrives in Hawaii with a chance to reclaim his career. Brian must win the approval of a native Hawaiian leader for a new military project, and his companion is a young pilot named Allison Ng (Emma Stone) who isn’t shy about informing Brian and the audience that she is one-quarter Hawaiian. This insistence on Stone’s identity is the most clunky element of Crowe’s script, but once the attraction between Brian and Allison is acknowledged Stone’s performance snaps from Muppet-level broadness into reality and we remember why we like her. There are also Bill Murray (“Let’s cast Bill Murray as a billionaire who wants to weaponize space!”) and Alec Baldwin, whose role as a loudmouth general comes much too easily. The amount of time spent on a comic dance scene involving Murray’s and Stone’s characters gives me great hope for the Aloha director’s cut blu-ray, in which the film Crowe wanted to make will no doubt be revealed.

Then comes Rachel McAdams, who plays an ex-lover of Brian’s who is living on base in Hawaii with two children and a husband (John Krasinski) whose dislike of spoken English is elevated to the level of a fetish. McAdams is so believably human, harried, and confused about her future that I badly wanted her character to have her own film. Indeed, the scenes between McAdams and Cooper demonstrate that Crowe is capable of making a very good film about second chances if only someone would give him a budget. Instead we are treated to Crowe’s version of a James Bond climax - how ironic that the trailer for Spectre ran before Aloha - in which Cooper’s character attempts to save the world by throwing a rock-and-roll bomb at a satellite. If there is a lesson to be learned from Aloha then it’s a lesson for Crowe, who should scale his next script to the level of an HBO movie and then rely on the fact that top-tier stars still want to work with him. Aloha is a pleasant misfire, odder than even the famously unsuccessful Elizabethtown, but it is also a film that demonstrates Cameron Crowe hasn’t lost his talent for putting the human heart on screen.

2 comments:

CW said...

PART 1 of 2

I rarely see a film in a cinema that I don’t enjoy. “Movie theater” films are expensive, so I really vet them...and usually make the right call. We picked ALOHA last night solely on the basis of its writer-director, and the sense that movies like Cameron Crowe’s are increasing scarce at the multiplex—a calamity many pontificate about in social media from the comfort of their recliners and 60”+ screens at home. When we can, Emily and I try to actually go to see such films...buy the popcorn, the whole nine yards. These films will eventually leave local movie theaters for good, and I feel certain that ALOHA will be Crowe’s last cinema release. So...we went wanting to love the movie. A bias that probably colors my read of the movie.

I liked ALOHA’s slow burn and rangy form quite a bit. Most films with big movie stars are Save The Cat’d to death, meaning they are machine-crafted to fit tried and true forms (understandable...we did that to CINEMA PURGATORIO). But ALOHA felt like it’d gone through the Pixar story process. And it never apologized for that. It was a proud tangle of a movie.

Movies like ALOHA often get away with looser narrative shape because their movie stars reassure us when we get lost in them. As such, ALOHA is a Tom Cruise movie starring Bradley Cooper. Cooper does his best to fill those shoes but there were moments (the eavesdropping on Emma Stone’s phone scene comes to mind) when you just want Cruise there to make it work.


Crowe has built a career making movies about men who want to be better, commit to being better, and then struggle through it...and usually end up a little better, but none worse for the wear. He’s (properly) wary of muses, but he does believe that True Love does a fella good. And in ALOHA I like his evolved take on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDGs was coined for an ELIZABETHTOWN review ten years ago). Stone’s character is assertive, complete without male affection, and compelling to powerful men in a way that is fun to watch.

Incidentally, I’m not sure we’ve seen a star quite like Emma Stone. Comparing her to Jennifer Lawrence is probably useful...both women seem like unaffected girls next door, both are super-popular right now. But Stone is such a natural screen comedian, easy in her technique (like Lucille Ball?) and always, always charming...like, she never wears out her welcome on screen. We’re always happy to see her. Who’s like that? Who was like that? Goldie Hawn?

I really dig John Krasinski’s strong silent pilot, and yeah...the bit goes screwball with the subtitles at the end, but again, I don’t mind the messy. We’ve not seen a character like that in a movie before, though there are hundreds we know in our lives.

I agree that the scenes with Rachel McAdams and Cooper felt most like the movie Crowe wanted to make. In particular the scene in the kitchen where they recap their failed relationship while her husband and kids are in the adjoining room. Actors live for scenes like that. And Crowe properly lets his camera float with their performances (the picture edit of that scene is amazing).

CW said...

PART 2 of 2

Oddly enough, the only moment of ALOHA I hated, viscerally hated, was during the very last scene with Cooper looking through the hula class window at the 12 year-old he’s just learned is his daughter. My how I hated that! First, how cruel to reduce a 12 year-old’s feelings about realizing her father isn’t her dad to a happy cry and a hug. Second, how Baby Boomer-needy for Cooper’s character to WANT HER TO KNOW HE’S HER DAD. Should this happen to you, me, any of us...may we have the sense, the maturity to know that we don’t disrupt a kid’s sense of family, home, and identity with our own need for self-actualization. Em and I talked about this a lot (I’ve been writing a screenplay with a similar subplot recently). Perhaps the scene was added later? I know I’ve argued for messiness, but this add-on was more than an indulgence. It was the final scene of the movie. Clearly, the walk-off with Stone should have been (or better: no walk off—just cut to credits on the two shot, or a Cooper close-up as he looks at Stone).

I’m glad Hall & Oates “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” got the screen time it did in the Officer’s Club Christmas party scene. It’s my favorite pop song. And given Crowe’s amazing pop/rock music literacy (he actually underscores dialogue scenes with pop/rock songs...which is generally frowned upon, but he makes it work...its his signature), that felt extremely validating.

Oh! The James Bond film B-plot. It was weird, yeah. THE DECENDENTS’ Hawaiian land B-plot was better...without the tacked-on military privatization commentary.

Bill Murray was plausible enough as the tycoon, but he flounders through the performance...unsure of if he’s playing “Bill Murray” or an actual character in a movie. I’m starting to believe BROKEN FLOWERS will be his last great performance.

So, disorienting? Yeah. ALOHA is certainly oddly crafted. But vaguely depressing? I didn’t feel depressed or even disappointed. I think I walked out vaguely wistful. These movies are leaving 20’+ screens forever, and we saw one of the last ones! Also...American movie star films are still (very occasionally) giving these privileged few the chance to actually play scenes together. Which affirms my hope that good writers and directors with eclectic visions may still be able to convince bankable actors to join their projects between the banal tentpoles that make them rich and famous.