It's probably not politically correct to call Aloha the redheaded stepchild of the summer movie season, but that's what writer-director Cameron Crowe's latest has become. First it was slammed by former Sony cochair Amy Pascal in last year's email leak. Then it was bumped from December to May in a gesture of bad faith. The filmmaker was accused of whitewashing Hawaii by activists who hadn't seen the picture. Finally, in a last-ditch effort to ensure the film's total, crushing failure, Sony refused to screen it for critics until the eve of its opening. Most skewered it.
The thing is, Aloha's not half bad — a perfectly serviceable romantic comedy with an endearing sense of the surreal, a charming touch of spirituality and a timely political message. It may not be Say Anything... or Jerry Maguire. Thankfully, it's also not Vanilla Sky or Elizabethtown. While Crowe has been a pop culture fixture since the '80s (he wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High), he's actually made just eight features. Aloha ranks right about at the mid-level of his oeuvre.
Bradley Cooper stars as Brian Gilcrest, a defense contractor. He returns to Hickam Field, the Air Force's Honolulu base, to complete a semi-classified mission for a billionaire industrialist named Carson Welch (Bill Murray), who's decided to go into the space business. Emma Stone plays Gilcrest's handler, perky pilot Allison Ng. Completing the love triangle is Rachel McAdams in the role of old flame Tracy Woodside, a woman with feelings for her ex in addition to a husband (John Krasinski) and two kids.
First on Gilcrest's to-do list is negotiating permission to relocate a sacred burial site to make way for the satellite facility that the military wants to build with Welch's blank check. He's old friends with the man in charge, real-life Nation of Hawaii leader Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele, who plays himself.
That choice doesn't exactly smack of whitewashing. Kanahele wears a T-shirt reading "Hawaiian by Birth" on the front and "American by Force" on the back. I don't recall anybody referencing native opposition to the region's "occupation" in Forgetting Sarah Marshall or The Descendants.
It'd be difficult to screw up the chemistry between performers as likable as Stone and Cooper. Rom coms with less inventive dialogue and more by-the-numbers characters hit the cineplex every other week. I genuinely enjoyed watching Gilcrest flirt with the notion of letting go of his past with Woodside and embracing Ng's offbeat mysticism.
Did I mention the film also features Danny McBride; Jaeden Lieberher, the kid from St. Vincent; and Alec Baldwin? It's mathematically impossible for it not to be entertaining — or, at least, weird in an extremely interesting way. As it happens, Aloha is both.
Music has always played a prominent role in Crowe's films, and this one is no exception. The third act contains a personal statement about the power of rock unlike anything I've seen in a movie before. When a satellite in orbit turns out to have a dangerous secret payload, Gilcrest must take it down armed only with his laptop. His solution?
He zaps it with waves generated by a program containing "every sound ever recorded" (OK, suspend disbelief here; it's worth it). The result is a stirring sonic creation, like the final chord of "A Day in the Life" played by every musician since Buddy Holly on every instrument at once.
Needless to say, evil doesn't stand a chance against such a force. Crowe no doubt wishes such a thing really existed. How he must wish he could point it at Sony headquarters and hit "play."