Surprise! Cameron Crowe’s ‘Aloha’ Isn’t a Catastrophe

Public service announcement: Cameron Crowe’s new film Aloha features a party scene where Emma Stone and Bill Murray dance to Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That,” and if you (like me) are the kind of person who finds the promise of such a scene utterly delightful, let me assure you that it lives up to that promise. It’s a scene of sheer movie-star pleasure that pretty much stops the film for about three minutes; it doesn’t really move the plot (or even, in retrospect, make much narrative sense), but it feels like something Crowe had to put in, for the simple reason that he couldn’t not put it in. Maybe a more disciplined filmmaker would’ve resisted that temptation, but if we’ve learned anything about Cameron Crowe, it’s that he’s not terribly disciplined, which can be both a blessing and a curse. It seems your correspondent likes Aloha more than much of the critical community (to say nothing of the studio releasing it), but your enjoyment will hinge greatly on your level of tolerance for Mr. Crowe’s indulgences.

Aloha has been the subject of much speculation and some unexpected controversy. The conversation of the last week or so has surrounded its casting and focus, to which I don’t have much to add; concerns over the quality of the film itself began with its appearance in the hacked Sony emails, which detailed its poor test screenings and studio head Amy Pascal’s complaints that the picture “never, not even once, ever works.” The studio’s subsequent treatment of the film reflects that lack of enthusiasm. Its one and only media screening was just two days ago, and this review is running at the very moment the studio is allowing it to — at 4 PM on Thursday, three hours before its first public screenings here in New York. These are not the actions of an organization that wants people to hear what critics think of their product.

Bradley Cooper and Rachel McAdams in "Aloha"

And sure, Aloha has its problems. It somehow simultaneously over- and underwritten, with certain motivations explained to the nth degree while entire subplots are all but impossible to track. It has a “falling in love” Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude that plays like someone doing a Cameron Crowe imitation, poorly. The seams of the reshot ending couldn’t be clearer if there were grease-pencil marks on the frame. And while corny romantic dialogue is, to some extent, Mr. Crowe’s #brand, lines like, “Take those blue eyes and go to her” aren’t exactly, “You had me at hello.”

Or… are they? While there’s no question Crowe’s last three narrative features —Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown, and We Bought a Zoo — didn’t approach the heights of Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous, none is a washout. Each has at least a sprinkling of heartfelt writing, sharp performances, and good sequences; what’s more, the overall greatness of his early pictures can help us forget their occasional maudlin interludes or creaky exchanges. But they’re there, and they’re real. It seems less that Crowe’s gifts have escaped him than that they’ve become disproportionate with his excesses, and we’re less forgiving of those trespasses.

Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone in "Aloha"

All of which is a long (good god, so long) way of getting around to saying that Aloha is, on many levels, pretty good. It showcases the downright awe-inspiring chemistry between Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper. Sure, she could generate heat with a tree stump, but they have a good thing going onscreen; when he mumbles, at the peak of their first flush, “Whoa boy, am I goner,” you believe it. The relationship between Cooper’s Brian and Rachel McAdams’ Tracy (Wedding Crashers reunion!) is legitimately interesting; they were in love a long time ago, and clearly still feel for each other strongly enough that when her husband Woody (John Krasinski) gets a look at them, he knows he could lose her. (This subplot inspired the derp-iest of Pascal’s notes — “People don’t like people in movies who flirt with married people or married people who flirt” — which is a nice reminder not to put too much stock in the sweeping insights of studio executives.) In fact, Woody marks a real departure for both Crowe and Krasinski (quite good), who create and act a character who just plain can’t express himself — a type that exists, but seldom in the romantically verbose Crowe universe. And as an eccentric billionaire (the role he was born to play), Bill Murray is terrific, setting his own rhythm in each scene and grooving in it.

I can see, and acknowledge, Aloha’s many flaws; I can’t imagine its critical reception will surpass, or likely even meet, that of his last feature We Bought a Zoo. But that movie also put up respectable numbers, and I expect his latest will do the same; it appeals to the same older audience that doesn’t pay much attention to reviews, much less industry-based retooling gossip, and who value the notion of a non-sequel summer movie where grown-ups talk to each other. And they’ll probably like it. I sorta did too.

Aloha is out tomorrow.