Conventional wisdom holds that it is difficult, if not impossible, to make a good movie in Hawaii. Filming in a tropical paradise tends to make filmmakers soft and scattered, more focused on how to spend their free time than the work at hand. So it is wise to be skeptical of a movie made in Hawaii, and about Hawaii, and swooningly in love with Hawaii – and cursed with the most generic imaginable title for a Hawaii-themed movie – from Cameron Crowe, a filmmaker inclined to gooey softness even when he's not filming in one of the most enchanting places on Earth.
Tonally and thematically, Aloha feels like a willfully perverse return to Crowe's 2005 Elizabethtown, the director's biggest flop, but clearly a film he loves so much he inexplicably felt the need to make it twice, once in the American South and once even further south in Honolulu. Both films centre on men whose extraordinary early promise has curdled into disillusionment, leaving them broken and distraught before they return to a homey little paradise, complete with fantasy love interest.
In Elizabethtown, the prodigy made bad was a disgraced superstar shoe designer played by Orlando Bloom. Here, it's the depressed Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper, reverting to the blandly handsome blankness of his pre-Silver Linings Playbook career), a space-obsessed genius who has accepted a mercenary post working for oily billionaire defence contractor Carson Welch (Bill Murray) following a series of personal and professional mistakes that have left him a broken husk of a man.
But just as fate provides Bloom's sad sack an antidote to his soul-sickness in the form of a flight attendant played by Kirsten Dunst, who will not rest until he's bursting with joy, in Aloha, Brian's gloom meets an even more powerful force for happiness in the form of Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), his defence department-appointed guide.
Allison is supposed to be adorably irritating. Instead, she comes off as irritatingly adorable, despite the extraordinary charm and magnetism of Stone. Dunst's performance in Elizabethtown inspired me to coin the phrase "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" to describe the strangely ubiquitous archetype of the bubbly life-lover who exists in movies like this to instill life lessons and engender a rapturous appreciation of the world's wonders to gloomy male depressives. Considering the criticism he received for Dunst's performance in Elizabethtown, it's bewildering that Crowe apparently instructed Stone to give an identical turn in a suspiciously similar role.
Crowe has a small-time politician's fawning deference to the innate kindness and decency of common people, and an aging hippie's distrust of the man. As in Elizabethtown, the protagonist is partially healed by the unwavering enthusiasm and support of an impossibly cheerful, upbeat figure of romantic fantasy and partially by interacting with the salt-of-the-earth natives of a charmed Southern utopia.
Aloha's politics are bumper-sticker simplistic and reductive. It is the cinematic equivalent of a "War is harmful for children and other living things" sticker slapped on a Volkswagen van, particularly in a third act that turns on missiles being the enemy of outer space, which is all beautiful and pure and sacred, man.
At his best, Crowe's kindness toward his characters and unapologetic embrace of sincerity is a formidable strength in his great early movies like Almost Famous, Say Anything and Jerry Maguire, but at this point his kindness is a weakness and his fondness for his characters has devolved into sloppy sentimentality. Aloha is a marshmallow of a film: soft on the inside, soft on the outside and wholly devoid of substance.
For a film overflowing with grand proclamations of love and wonder, Aloha's best moments are devoid of dialogue. As in the similarly maudlin St. Vincent, Murray is strongest during the rare instances where he's able to break free of a leaden screenplay and simply exult in the glory of being Bill Murray, most notably in a scene where he dances defiantly and exuberantly with Stone. Like Murray, the actress is better served by scenes where she doesn't have to talk than by the reams of self-conscious banter Crowe forces upon her.
In one of the film's many bizarre miscalculations, the wry and wisecracking John Krasinski is miscast as John (Woody) Woodside, the strong, silent husband of Brian's ex-girlfriend Tracy (the delightful Rachel McAdams, underserved in a role and subplot begging for the cutting room floor).
The single joke of Woody's character, and a joke the film returns to over and over again to its cutesy detriment (perhaps because it has so few others), is that he communicates a lot without actually speaking. Within the context of the film, this causes problems in his marriage with Tracy. But given the nature of Crowe's desperately overwritten screenplay, a reluctance to fill the world with bubbly, unnecessary and stridently clever verbiage is less a flaw than a strength every character in the film should share.