There’s an irritating tendency with a few movie critics, reviewers and pundits sometimes where they judge a film more on its production and development history than on the film itself. If a movie runs into trouble during filming or runs over budget or the director has issues with the lead actor, well, sometimes critics smell blood. They immediately assume that if a production is troubled, that it must be bad.
This is, of course, absolute hogwash. You’ve probably heard stories about what a mess it was to make Casablanca, and that’s routinely considered one of the greatest Hollywood films of all time. Although I did not like Titanic, it became a multiple Academy-Award blockbuster, despite having been an exhausting and by all accounts miserable shoot. Yes, film critics and pundits can, on occasion, judge a movie not for it as a film, but based on it’s production history.
Prior to my viewing, I assumed that something similar was occurring with Cameron Crowe’s latest film, Aloha. Sony’s emails were hacked in 2014, and a series of emails lamenting the many flaws and problems regarding Aloha were revealed to the world. The film was edited and retooled by Crowe, and, I would guess, itchy studio executives. Many critics were upset that a film that takes place in Hawaii does not star Hawaiian natives, but rather white actors. People were especially upset regarding the casting of Emma Stone, playing a character named Allison Ng. There was not a similar public outrage about Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, which also took place in Hawaii and did not star native Islanders, and also featured George Clooney as a native Hawaiian.
Over the last fourteen years or so, it seems that critics have loved ripping Cameron Crowe a new one. Crowe, you remember was a young screenwriter in Hollywood when he directed his first feature film, Say Anything. Crowe would go on to write and direct Singles, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, for which he would win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. At this point in his career, Crowe had been involved in probably some of your favorite movies (Say Anything, Singles and Almost Famous would definitely be somewhere on a list of my favorite movies).
Vanilla Sky, in 2001, was ambitious and over-the-top, although I still would argue it’s a good movie; yet many regarded Vanilla Sky as a critical failure. It’s with Elizabethtown, though, that usually it’s acknowledged that here Crowe began to slip. We Bought a Zoo followed, and at that time, Crowe focused on documentaries. Aloha is his first fiction film in four years.
Some reviewers, the mediocre ones, enjoy a filmmaker’s fall from grace. They actually revel in an Oscar winner experiencing a series of set-backs and failures. That’s why Aloha was getting miserable reviews and notices before many places even screened the picture. It arrived among a fog of jeers and boos. It felt like audiences had already made a decision on the quality of the film without having seen it first.
So, last Friday, I walked into the movie theater as I always do with a mind clear and devoid of expectations or prejudices regarding a filmmaker or star. I went in with a clean slate; completely open to the experience of the film.
With that being said, Aloha is a dismal, self-indulgent mess. A well-meaning, poorly written failure. The fact that this was written by someone who won an Academy Award for writing is pretty shocking. In almost every respect, it is excruciatingly bad. It is without a doubt one of the worst films of the year.
Casting white actors as characters with multi-ethnic backgrounds while so many non-white actors struggle to find work is wrong. That being said, that is a widespread Hollywood problem, and not something that Cameron Crowe alone has done (Crowe has come out and apologized regarding Stone’s casting; I don’t think Michael Bay has ever apologized for the racism or misogyny in his films). Anyway, I was discussing the film afterwards with a good friend, and we agreed that Stone playing a one-fourth Chinese Hawaiian native is the least of this film’s many problems.
Ugh. This movie is a garbage heap of half-baked ideas, underdeveloped story lines and uninspired performances. The fact that the film contains some good elements, including a few beautiful images and two good performances, makes the fact that it is so bad that much more infuriating.
I mentioned earlier that after the leaked Sony emails that the film was retooled and tinkered. I suspect that studio executives, worried about the film, edited and added some elements without Crowe’s permission. This is speculative, of course, but I’m convinced. The film opens with an awkward narration by Bradley Cooper that quickly crams in all of his backstory, and introduces most of the main characters in the first few minutes. This feels like the studio, worried that audiences wouldn’t immediately understand the protagonist’s occupation or backstory, added the narration in at the last minute.
The other piece of the film that feels like studio interference to me is a ridiculous scene, late in the picture, where two characters are communicating without speaking and there are subtitles telling us what they’re saying. The subtitles ruin what could have been a good moment between two actors, and turns it into a stupid joke. Again, I would guess that the studio didn’t like that it was a one minute scene with no talking, and figured audiences may be confused. They forgot that acting is not just about dialogue, and that viewers can pick up on facial expressions and body gestures. Trust the actors and trust the audience. If the studio didn’t interfere with this scene, then this may go down as the worst scene Crowe ever wrote or directed.
I realized that I haven’t referred to the story much, don’t worry, neither did Crowe; kidding! Bradley Cooper plays Brian Gilcrest, a military contractor who now works for a mysterious billionaire named Carson Welch (Bill Murray, trying really, really hard). You see, Welch kind of left Gilcrest for dead in Kuwait a while back, but now Gilcrest is in Hawaii and back in Welch’s good graces. Gilcrest is in Hawaii to help Welch launch a rocket; Gilcrest is there to help ease the military presence on the island. Emma Stone plays Captain Alison Ng, who is Gilcrest’s military liaison.
Also on the island are Gilcrest’s ex-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams), her stoic, silent husband (played by John Krasinski), their two children (Jaeden Lieberher and Danielle Rose Russell), Gilcrest’s old military buddy (played by Danny McBride), and, finally, Gilcrest’s old military boss, played by Alec Baldwin.
I can’t begin to tell you how boring this all is, or how self-indulgent, or how cloying and obnoxious. Jupiter Ascending, another one of the worst films of this year, holds the record for most times I’ve muttered the phrase “F**k this movie” while watching a film, but Aloha gets second place (I think the final tally was 12 times). There’s a moment where McAdams tells Cooper that he was always a workaholic who worked in order not to live his life, to which Cooper responds “I’m working on that.” Remember, Crowe won an Oscar for writing!
Let’s talk about some of the few bright spots in this film. There’s an extended sequence where Gelcrist and Ng are invited to a traditional Hawaiian dinner and celebration with a large community of natives, and the scene has a loose, improvisational feel (it reminded me of the large Southern family dinner in Elizabethtown). It’s the only scene where Cooper or Stone seem to have any life in their performances.
There’s a wide shot at a park of a long line of mothers exercising with a row of baby strollers in front of them; the moment feels like it’s out of a Fellini film. There’s a couple of other shots that are memorable in the way they have been composed, but only a few. For the most part, the cinematography, by Eric Gautier, is pretty pedestrian.
In a cast this big and this prestigious, it’s surprising that only two performances stand out. They would be Danielle Rose Russell as Grace, Rachel McAdam’s daughter, and Alec Baldwin as General Dixon. In Baldwin’s brief role, he’s subtle and taciturn in his first scene and over-the-top in the next. It’s a nice balance. Russell is luminous in an under-written role, and her role is the heart of the film.
Aloha is an awful motion picture, but it’s unusual that such a bad movie has such a good ending. The last scene of the film is beautiful and touching, and in her big moment, Russell knocks it out of the park. Her work deserves a better movie, and so do we.
Aloha. 2015. Dir. Cameron Crowe. With Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, John Krasinski, Bill Murray, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Bill Camp, Danielle Rose Russell, Jaeden Lieberher. Written by Cameron Crowe. Cinematography by Eric Gautier. United States.