Good or bad, Cameron Crowe movies build to improbable declarations of sincerity, to the great acts or speeches a man must loose from himself into a world too cynical to value them. His heroes always must filibuster regular life with their decency. Superficially, these acts and speeches are performed in the direction of a woman, who is given a chance to respond when the man has finished. But the acts/speeches are never about her — instead, they’re about how she has freed the man up enough to dare to say or do the things he’s saying and doing.
“You had me at hello,” she might say, when he peters out, because to a woman in a Cameron Crowe movie the specifics of a lover’s words or feelings don’t matter, just so long as they’re aimed at her. In Aloha, which is as risible as you’ve heard it is, Bradley Cooper’s character only speaks his heart to Emma Stone’s after covering her face in a comically oversized hat. Then, spared the intimacy of her eyes, he spews his movie-talk poetry, letting her know that they must be together. For a long time she says nothing, but she does deliver a verdict, a single tear tumbling slowly below the brim of that hat.
The plot, a baffler, keeps these two apart for another 40 minutes, but that moment is the film’s only coherent climax. It’s also possibly the most telling onscreen example of Cameron Crowe’s junior-high ideas about romance. In your youth, did you ever find the courage to profess your love to someone you weren’t certain loved you back? If so, you might have spoken into a void, perhaps on the phone — into silence you maybe strained to fill with everything beautiful inside you. That silence was about your own feelings, of course, and how much you loved their simple purity, and how with an artful declaration you might win your target over. It was about some need to get him or her or the world itself to listen, to appreciate your niceness, to fall in love with how much you loved, maybe to cry one beautiful tear.
Cameron Crowe writes movies like he’s calling us in eighth grade with his heart on fire. Here’s how Stone’s character describes Cooper’s, early in Aloha: “a brilliant, compelling, innovative, commanding wreck of a guy.” Doesn’t that sound like the most generous review that Crowe could have hoped for with Elizabethtown or We Bought a Zoo? Does he feel that we fail him when, unlike his female leads, we don’t embrace the wrecks? Does it hurt him that we don’t pull a hat over our eyes and let him move us with how moved he is?
In Aloha he even attempts to one-up his greatest hit. You liked John Cusack demonstrating his sincerity by holding a boombox toward Ione Skye? Wait until you see Cooper prove himself to Stone by uploading the entire history of recorded sound into an evil satellite owned by Bill Murray. Yes, that actually happens in the movie, occasioning a quick survey of pop music Crowe likes; and no, it makes no more sense in context. Cusack blasted a song toward Skye; Cooper blasts all songs ever into the sky, for Stone, who until this moment has been mad at him. But now, impressed, she holds his hand as they both stare straight ahead at a computer screen — he’s shown her he deserves her with an act so much more grand than, say, looking at her, or regarding her, or letting her talk. Her character’s just another Almost Famous Band-Aid, expending her youth so that a man can be great.
The movie’s specifics are tough to follow, perhaps due to studio cuts and re-editing. Stone’s character, a fighter pilot, is for some reason tasked with showing Cooper’s, an aerospace engineer, around Hawaii while Cooper’s character helps persuade native Hawaiians (repped by real-life activist and descendant-of-royalty Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele) to allow the tech billionaire played by Murray to build a platform to launch rockets. Or something. It’s all stubbornly vague, with lots of insultingly cute links to Hawaiian folklore. One character suggests Cooper might be a reincarnated island god, which is just a hair less ridiculous than the fact that Stone’s character’s last name is Ng — she’s part Chinese, part Hawaiian, and yet still all Gwen Stacy.
Complicating matters is Rachel McAdams as an ex of Cooper’s character — might her young daughter be his? John Krasinski turns up as Cameron Crowe’s idea of a stoic, silent soldier, and he and Cooper get two could-have-been-good scenes of silent masculine communication. They aren’t good, because Krasinski and Crowe lack the gravity to pull this idea off, but at least for once it’s a guy who shuts up.
Murray is playing something of a Bond villain, but he and Stone have the movie’s best moment: They dance, at an officers’ club, to “I Can’t Go for That,” with great goony energy — it’s the only time any of Crowe’s men share a moment with her, rather than impose one on her. The leads do what they can, but in this final cut either seems capable of any random feeling or eruption at any time. Why does Cooper howl like a dog out the window of a car? Why does Stone’s character tell her mother that this engineer she’s just met seems like a great guy — immediately after he’s been cruel to her? What are they fighting about when they fight in the woods? Why does this movie, which takes place over five days, start before Christmas, end after Christmas, and not have Christmas in it?