Aloha is another Cameron Crowe picture about a successful man who finds his professional life in jeopardy while his inner life is restored by romance. Furthermore, it’s another of his romantic comedies spiked with office drama, like Jerry Maguire was falling in love while negotiating sports agent business and Matt Damon fell for Scarlett Johansson while she helped him with his zoo in We Bought a Zoo. There’s also Orlando Bloom’s disgraced suit meeting Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, and you could throw the reality-scrambling Vanilla Sky into the mix, with publisher Tom Cruise crushing on Penelope Cruz, if you view its twisty ending optimistically. In Aloha, a depressed defense contractor (Bradley Cooper) survives an explosive encounter in Kabul and is reassigned to Hawaii, where he’s to negotiate a new roadway through Native Hawaiian territory. His military liaison is a bright charming young woman (Emma Stone). If you already think he’ll fall in love and grow a conscience, you’ve been paying attention.
Because Crowe is a warm writer sincere in his sentimentality, he can usually make his formulaic tendencies work. (Of course, he’s even better when drifting away from formula. It’s why Say Anything… is still his best film.) What’s most peculiar about Aloha is how everything around this central romance plot is much more fascinating and effective than what is inside it. Cooper and Stone have fine chemistry playing two people who have to fall in love because they’re the stars of the movie and the script keeps pushing them together. It’s largely unconvincing, following a period of initial irritation, then intense love, then a tearful misunderstanding, and so on. What’s far more interesting is watching Cooper’s interactions with other characters in a breezy, low-key, undemanding story of a man slowly regrowing his conscience.
This growth takes root as Cooper works with his boss (Bill Murray), a tycoon trying to launch a satellite with the armed forces’ help. One gets the impression Cooper has been unscrupulous in the past. Half-articulated military industrial commentary abounds in a guardedly biting way, as the rich man’s real aims are hidden from the brass (Danny McBride and Alec Baldwin). Meanwhile, both public and private interests are all too willing to manipulate Native Hawaiians to go along with their schemes, trading them land and assistance to wave construction through sacred spaces. This thread is far more interesting than whether or not the girl will fall for the guy, especially when their relationship is so thinly sketched and taken for granted. The story is dusted with a few intimations of magical realism that never amounts to anything, and is resolved far too neatly and softly to retain its teeth, but is a more intriguing element in every way.
Better still is a subplot involving an ex-fiancé of Cooper’s, played by Rachel McAdams with glowing happiness tinged with a hint of regret. It's been a dozen years since their break up. She has two kids (Danielle Rose Russell and Jaeden Lieberher) with a military man (John Krasinski). She loves her family. And yet the appearance of her old love gets her thinking. This storyline features the best writing and acting in the film, Crowe at his best drawing relationships that play out with real compassion and unexpected developments. It’s a reflection of where the main character’s life went wrong, a cozy family unit he’s invited to spend time with, but left just on the outside of embracing. There’s too much history there, and too much pressure to get his job done. If the corruption he encounters is the seed of his moral reawakening, seeing the love he left is the fertilizer for this new growth.
There are plenty of worthwhile pieces to Aloha, but Crowe doesn’t put them together. They play like separate elements instead of a cohesive whole, connected by character and only faint echoes of each other. It’s telling that the conclusion finds several final moments, tying up individual threads – an arrest, several reconciliations, a tearful reveal – without a feeling of overall finality. This is a film of gentle rhythms and light tropical breezes. French cinematographer Eric Gautier captures lovely island landscapes and floats between the performers with ease. Crowe writes a handful of terrific lines and finds some nice cuts from his record collection for the soundtrack. It’s certainly well intentioned. But why does it feel so slight and disconnected? The writing lacks a certain sparkle, and lingers in disjunction between disparate elements. There are strange asides – a grisly toe injury, a ghostly vision – distractingly out of place, appearing once, then never mentioned again. Hardly a disaster, it’s perhaps best to approach Aloha as a sweet, earnest jumble, likable parts in search of a whole.