“Aloha” is used to say both “hello” and “goodbye” in Hawaiian, and it’s fair to say that anyone unlucky enough to be introduced to this Cameron Crowe’s movie will be more than pleased to take their leave of it when the credits come up. It represents yet another low point for a writer-director whose name for a few years promised something idiosyncratically clever but ever since “Vanilla Sky” has represented more a warning than an invitation.
Presumably the picture is supposed to be a romantic comedy, but it’s one so misshapen and tonally awkward that whatever the writer-director intended has to be imagined rather than experienced. The story centers on Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), an erstwhile air force hero who left the service for greener pastures by using his military expertise in the corporate world. It was while working for the powerful company run by eccentric billionaire Carlson Welch (Bill Murray) that he was seriously injured in Afghanistan, though what precisely he was doing there is never really explained.
Now Gilcrest is on his way back to Oahu, limping on and off but otherwise in one piece and again in the relatively good graces of Carlson, who’s gotten involved in the business of privately-funded space exploration and is partnering with the Air Force in a secretive launch from its island base. Brian has been brought in to negotiate with an old friend, Dennis Kanahele (playing himself), a Hawaiian-rights activist, to arrange the movement of a native burial ground so the land can be used for Welch’s purposes. Another old acquaintance, Colonel Lacy (Danny McBride), also known as “Fingers” for his odd hand gesticulations, assigns Gilchrist, who has a dicey reputation, with a handler, Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a spit-and-polish type who’s nonetheless a huge admirer (as well as fiercely protective of the island culture, since she’s said to be partially of native lineage).
There’s yet another plot thread to deal with: Gilcrest’s reconnection with old flame Tracy Woodside (Rachel McAdams), now wed to air force pilot Woody (John Krasinski), a strong, silent fellow who prefers communicating with gestures rather than words. They have two children, pre-teen Grace (Danielle Rose Russell), who’s studying native dance, and precocious tyke Mitchell (Jaeden Lieberher), one of those ultra-precocious, cute-as-an-apple kids with a video camera perpetually in hand who’s also an absolute font of information on Hawaiian mythology and the vast reaches of space.
What follows is the sort of redemption tale that Crowe has mounted much more successfully before. Gilcrest, like Jerry McGuire before him, is a sell-out, but deep down one who longs to recapture his old sense of idealism. There’s nothing wrong with recycling a good story, especially one that a writer has managed to invest with an admirable mixture of cleverness and sentiment earlier. This time around, though, nothing gels. As a result of Crowe’s overly cutesy writing and haphazard editing (credited to Joe Hutshing, though from the result one suspects lots of post-production tinkering to try to salvage the picture), Gilcrest never comes into focus; his background and motivation remain obscure, and Cooper’s natural charm is strained by the effort to make us care about him. Nor do his relationships with Ng and Tracy resonate, despite the fact that both actresses work hard (in Stone’s case, too much so—you can tell that she’s striving for a screwball sort of effect in playing the woman who’s key to Gilcrest’s change of heart, which doesn’t mesh with the rest of the action).
The supporting characters are also poorly drawn. Murray was apparently just given carte blanche to employ his shtick however he pleased, and his scenes come off more weird than effective. Krasinski and McBride, saddled with odd tics rather than any human substance, are little more than sub-sitcom sketches, though the former is such a likable lug that he invests Woody’s final meeting with Gilcrest, however contrived it is, with some genuine humor. Alec Baldwin shows up briefly as an irascible general, and gets an opportunity to do one of his patented rants; but his scenes are like cadenzas unrelated to the rest of the plot. As for the kids, Lieberher is apparently intended to serve the same function Jonathan Lipnicki did in “Jerry McGuire,” but fails to get beyond standard-moppet status, while Russell’s Grace gets to play a major part in Gilcrest’s reassessment of what’s important in life, but the young actress is assigned little but smiling and crying on cue. Even the movie’s use of the Hawaiian locations is inept; Eric Gautier’s contribution begins with an arrival scene that’s utterly disfigured by terrible handheld camerawork, a technique repeated in some of the shots that supposedly derive from Mitchell’s footage, but even after it settles down, the compositions come across as bland.
In the end one can only lament a total misfire like “Aloha.” You can vaguely discern what Crowe was after, but what shows up on screen is utterly slapdash, a muddled brew that tries to blend a story of personal redemption—ending in a triumphant twist so clumsily choreographed that it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s going on, or why—with doses of Hawaiian mysticism, warnings about weaponizing space, and even a message about the dangers of privatizing NASA. In taking on so much, Crowe has delivered too little, and that in a form that’s infuriatingly messy and opaque. One might hope that it’s a temporary aberration for the filmmaker, though his recent track record suggests—to use an aircraft analogy—that it’s just another stage in a descent so steep that he might not be able to pull out of it.