Aloha has elements of Cameron Crowe's best work, but poor storytelling results in a film that's more perplexing than charming.
Aloha stars Bradley Cooper as Brian Gilcrest, a highly successful military defense contractor who travels to his old stomping ground in Hawaii, to oversee the launch of a new satellite owned by the eccentric billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray). Shortly upon arrival, Brian is reunited with his ex-girlfriend Tracy (Rachel McAdams) - whom Brian hasn't seen in thirteen years - and is assisted on his job by his wide-eyed, extremely upbeat, Air Force watchdog - up and coming pilot Allison Ng (Emma Stone).
The seasoned (and cynical) Brian is put off by Allison's optimism at first, but he gradually begins to lower his defenses as the pair work together to secure a blessing from the Hawaiian nationalist leader Dennis Bumpy Kanahele (playing himself) for an event related to the satellite launch. However, when Brian learns there's more to Welch's project than meets the eye, he's faced with a choice: stick to the job as usual, or follow his heart and prevent another potential weapon from being sent into space.
The latest project from the Oscar-winning writer/director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, We Bought a Zoo), Aloha has a lot more on its mind than the average Hollywood romantic comedy, yet it never quite figures out how to say it; unfortunately, decent intentions only gets the film so far. So, while Aloha may be an interesting misfire from Crowe, it's also a somewhat baffling viewing experience overall.
Crowe's Aloha script is a heavily revised version of his Deep Tiki screenplay, which may help to explain why the final narrative put onscreen suffers from something of an identity crisis. There are many, many subplots and story threads wrapped around the quirky love story that lies at the heart of Aloha; at the same time, the film aims to blend thematic elements from Alexander Payne's The Descendants (by also examining the commodification of Hawaii) with a military comedy/satire. As a result of this, most of the main character threads in Aloha end up feeling under-developed or rushed - while the film is only able to provide unclear social commentary about the topics it broaches.
On a directorial level, Crowe's work on Aloha is likewise something of a peculiar mixed bag. Crowe and his cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries, On the Road) make some intriguing visual choices, yet the Hawaiian setting never really comes fully alive as a character itself - as it's seemingly intended to be. Aloha succeeds at creating a sense of atmosphere when it contrasts scenes bathed in warm tropical sunlight with shots of the island's cloudy skyline and misty mountains, but that feeling doesn't carry through the movie's many dialogue-driven sequences and one-on-one conversations. It's for those reasons that the Hawaiian backdrop in Aloha unintentionally feels like some vaguely mystical place, as opposed to the enchanting, but grounded, setting it's meant to be.
Aloha also suffers from some tonal issues, largely as a result of how the film packs so much disparate material together over the course of its three acts. Playfully off-beat and/or romantic moments hit the right note, yet something feels off when Crowe applies a similar touch to scenes that deal with war in the Middle East and the further militarization of Earth's outer atmosphere. It's certainly possible that a longer version of the film would've allowed these sequences the breathing room they need to co-exist peacefully, but the theatrical cut of Aloha plays out better when it's basically Jerry Maguire in Hawaii - not so much when it's attempting to be Crowe's version of Joe Versus the Volcano.
Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone do help to elevate Aloha above its shortcomings, with each delivering generally warm and likable performances - despite being saddled with playing what are (arguably) fairly stock character types. Stone's Swedish/Chinese/Hawaiian character (you read that correctly), for example, will no doubt be seen by many as another one of Crowe's Manic Pixie Dream Girls (be that a fair complaint or not), while Cooper's protagonist goes on a familiar journey - a guy who must recover his soul, having long ago given up on being a bright-eyed dreamer. Rachel McAdams, however, does have a fairly compelling role to play as Brian's ex; in a refreshing twist, she's perhaps more interested in reconciling her past with Brian for her own sake, rather than his.
Most of the supporting players in Aloha are the sort of off-kilter personalities that are commonly found in rom-com fare, but still leave a good impression thanks to the solid character actors behind them. That includes John Krasinski (The Office) as Tracy's husband John/"Woody" (whose "Man of Few Words" personality allows for some clever laughs), in addition to both Danny McBride (This Is the End) and Bill Camp (12 Years a Slave) as Brian's longtime professional collaborators. Bill Murray is likewise solid as ever despite being (arguably) under-used; the same goes for Alec Baldwin, who it seems was cast as a cantankerous general here mostly so he could bellow Crowe's nimbly-worded insults (much as he did in Crowe's 2005 movie, Elizabethtown).
Aloha has elements of Cameron Crowe's best work, but poor storytelling results in a film that's more perplexing than charming. There are certainly things here for fans of the filmmaker to appreciate (like another fine compilation soundtrack that's combined with a nice score by Jónsi & Alex), while some will appreciate how Crowe aimed to make a rom-com that's more substantial than most. Unfortunately, weak execution and too many head-scratching decisions make it hard to recommend Aloha as more than anything but a potential future rental option.
Aloha is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 105 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for some language including suggestive comments.