You’ve probably noticed from my recent posts that I’ve been on a bit of a bad superhero movies kick lately. Well, it’s actually more of a bad movies kick in general. My girlfriend and I have been working our way through a list of notoriously terrible studio films, because we are failures as human beings and this is the best way we could come up with to spend our free time. So, when we came across this post from the Hairpin describing Cameron Crowe’s recently-released Aloha as “This Decade’s Worst Movie Catastrophe,” we knew what we had to do.
To begin, let me clarify what I mean when I talk about “terrible studio films.” For me, a bad movie has to be unexpectedly bad in order to be remarkable; otherwise, when we talked about “bad movies,” we’d be talking exclusively about student film projects or grade-Z independent horror flicks or even home videos where somebody left the lens cap on for two hours. This is a common sticking point in bad movie connoisseurship: look at the IMDb Bottom 100, for example, and you’ll see mostly direct-to-video schlock like Jurassic Shark or Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder like Manos: The Hands of Fate, rather than anything you may have actually had a chance of seeing on your own. There is, of course, a place for bad movies of that kind, but I’m much more interested in the ones that should have known better: the ones with decent budgets, proven talent both behind and in front of the camera, and a network of studio executives trying to protect their investments, that somehow still managed to come out as irredeemable garbage.
Aloha is, without a doubt, a bad movie that should have known better. Just look at the cast: we have Bradley Cooper, a three-time Academy Award nominee for his roles in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), American Hustle (2013), and American Sniper (2014); Emma Stone, another Oscar nominee (for 2014’s Birdman) and longtime Thinking Person’s Actress Crush for legions of white nerds; hell, even Bill Murray is in it, and he can’t even blame the role on his agent because he doesn’t have one. Let’s also not forget that the film is written and directed by Cameron Crowe–who, while undoubtedly past his prime, has a body of work that proves he is at least capable of telling a coherent story. And yet, “coherent” is the last word I would use to describe his latest effort: a romantic comedy-drama/halfhearted military techno-thriller (no, I’m not exaggerating) that seems at times to have been written by an Automated Drama Generator with Crowe asleep at the wheel.
If you’ve heard anything about Aloha, you’ve probably heard about the accusations of whitewashing levied against Crowe’s casting of Stone as “Allison Ng,” a fighter pilot of quarter-Native Hawaiian/quarter-Chinese/half-Swedish descent–a genetic makeup she helpfully explains, àpropos of nothing, at least two times during the course of the movie. The casting is, indeed, egregious. But it is also among the least of Aloha‘s problems. This is a film that introduces Stone’s character by crash-zooming in on her as she strides into a military facility, pauses, and dramatically puts on a pair of Aviators (no, seriously, watch the opening scene above). It’s a film in which–spoiler alert!–Cooper’s character, military contractor “Brian Gilcrest,” somehow communicates to his ex-wife’s daughter that he is her biological father, simply by standing outside of her hula class and smiling intently at her.
Cameron Crowe has never been a subtle filmmaker–we’ve known that ever since Lloyd Dobler stood outside Diane Court’s window with that fucking boombox–but this is surely his nadir: a film so fallaciously convinced of its own emotional universality that it thinks nothing of including multiple scenes in which Gilcrest and his baby mama’s current husband (played with characteristic lack of personality by John Krasinski of The Office) exchange important narrative information using nothing but silent arm-squeezes and meaningful looks. Romantic comedies always operate on a kind of magical emotional logic, of course, but Aloha often seems like it was conceived by an alien being with no idea of how humans actually act, talk, and feel.
Worst of all is the dialogue, which is written in such dense Cameron-Crowe-ese that in several scenes I literally could not figure out what the characters were talking about. Just watch the clip above: what the fuck are they actually saying here?! Here is Bradley Cooper’s monologue, typed verbatim: “By the way, my ex-spouse did not give me ‘the heave.’ She met some rich guy who made his fortune selling comic books, and in this economy, that’s enough to vaporize a marriage…suddenly get replaced by a comic book version of yourself. Nobody wants to live where they are, they all wanna be in a fantasy, Ng. Alright? She gave me the heave.”
Cooper delivers these lines, and Stone reacts, as if they mean something, but their meaning is as insignificant as it is impenetrable; it’s like Crowe had the emotional beats for the scene all laid out–here Ng touches a nerve, here Gilcrest reveals a glimpse of his feelings, then they both share a bonding chuckle about “Hawaiian leprechauns”–and used random gibberish to fill in the blanks. It would almost work as an avant-garde meta-commentary on the broad formulae through which movie genres operate, were it not for the fact that Crowe also very clearly wants us to find it profound. This scene, and many others like it, reminded me of comedian Aziz Ansari’s routine about meeting the singer Seal and realizing that the lyrics of songs like “Kiss from a Rose” aren’t just lyrics, but “the way he talks all the time.” Maybe this isn’t just bad dialogue, but a glimpse at how Cameron Crowe actually talks–in which case, my sympathies to anyone who meets Mr. Crowe and is confronted with an embarrassing, faux-profound non-sequitur like “Will you stop getting more beautiful?”
But let’s talk some more about genre, because the oddest thing about Aloha is the way the film is never quite content with being a typical Cameron Crowe romantic comedy. I described it earlier as a “halfhearted military techno-thriller,” and indeed the last third or so of the film hinges on Gilcrest’s moral quandary after he discovers (through the ludicrous means of a Cameron Crowe Precocious Child™ who has been video-recording secret military affairs in the dead of night) that the rocket launch he’s been tasked with overseeing may actually be a front by his employer, Murray’s eccentric billionaire “Carson Welch,” to illegally store weapons of mass destruction in Earth’s orbit. Gilcrest, abruptly and seemingly off-camera, decides to sabotage the launch by overloading the rocket with sound–which obviously includes a lot of classic rock, because Cameron Crowe. We then discover (again, through plot machinations that take place almost entirely off-camera) that Welch really was trying to launch weapons into space, which means that this whole movie we’d been wasting our time watching Bradley Cooper put together the pieces of his past and fall for a feisty, allegedly quarter-Hawaiian fighter pilot, when we could have been watching genial, Christmas-tree-decorating, drunk-dancing Bill Murray as an honest-to-god Bond villain.
Nor is that the only occasion when Aloha could have become a more interesting movie. The film drops frequent references to Native Hawaiian folklore, meant presumably to demonstrate Crowe’s cultural research, but ultimately just creating bizarre tonal shifts. There are the aforementioned “Hawaiian leprechauns,” a.k.a. menehune, as well as a completely unexplained scene in which Gilcrest and Ng have to stop their car for a procession of ghostly “night marchers.” What Aloha‘s producers should have done was seize the film from Crowe and recut it into a horror movie in which every one of his self-important characters was stalked and killed by vengeful Hawaiian spirits; instead, we just have to sit there and watch for an interminable hour and 45 minutes as they come to grips with their feels and stuff. Oh, and stop a plot to violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty—let’s not forget that.
Okay. So, I realize that this post has been disorganized and unwieldy. But for that, I can only plead my readers’ understanding, because Aloha is pretty much impossible to concisely summarize without leaving out one or another of its batshit insane twists and turns. That post from the Hairpin was right: it is a catastrophe of a film, one for which even a previous acquaintance with the writer-director’s mawkish sentimentality could never have prepared me. Imagine if Jerry Maguire climaxed, not with the “you had me at hello” speech, but with a scene in which Jerry has Cuba Gooding, Jr. hack into a satellite and destroy it with the power of David Bowie; that would still have been a better film than Aloha (or, to be fair, Jerry Maguire).
If there is one truly damning thing I can say about this movie, it’s that–like most bad movies–it isn’t nearly as much fun to watch as the negative reviews make it sound. If you have any kind of vested interest in the craft of quality filmmaking, however, you should probably watch Aloha anyway. Few films in recent memory have so perfectly demonstrated the dangers of coasting on complacency: of assuming that, just because a director and a cast have had previous successes, what they create together will also be successful, or at least not an unwatchable mess. Everyone involved in Aloha categorically should have known better; the fact that they didn’t should, if nothing else, serve as a cautionary tale for future filmmakers and financiers alike.
You can purchase Aloha, if you insist, on Amazon.