Wednesday, June 3, 2015

You Had Me at Aloha: Despite faults, sincerely sweet "Aloha" wins one over

Aloha (2015) 
105 min., rated PG-13.

Judging by writer-director Cameron Crowe's oeuvre1989's "Say Anything…," 1996's "Jerry Maguire," 2000's "Almost Famous" and 2011's "We Bought a Zoo"he seems to be attracted to stories about characters trying to turn their lives around from professional and/or personal failures, and in return, his films often reveal insights into the human condition. And even if Crowe's films haven't all been critical successes2001's strange "Vanilla Sky" is actually subjectively stirring and transcendent, and 2005's quirky but aimless "Elizabethtown" at least has its isolated moments of a better movie in there somewhere—they never feel impersonal or indistinguishable. Crowe's latest, "Aloha," goes the same way, and everything surrounding the film's release—the leaked Sony emails, the negative buzz from so much tinkering and the cultural backlash for whitewashing the Hawaiian people—is rendered moot when getting to the film itself. It's an off-kilter romantic dramedy that might share too much with "Elizabethtown," as not everything works and coheres, but if it's not a cinematic miracle that could work on multiple levels, it's an engaging mess.

Wounded after a missile attack in Afghanistan, Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) is now a military contractor, requiring him to return to his old stomping ground at an Air Force base in Hawaii for billionaire space-exploration tycoon Carson Welch (Bill Murray). Brian is tasked with launching a new satellite into the sky and getting the Hawaiian natives' blessing for a new pedestrian gate, while his overeager fighter pilot, Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), is brought in as his watchdog. He also has to contend with a rush of unresolved emotions when he sees Tracy (Rachel McAdams), who works for the head of forensics in the Aloha State and is now married to pilot "Woody" (John Krasinski) with two kids, 12-year-old Grace (Danielle Rose Russell) and 10-year-old Mitchell (Jaeden Lieberher). Things feel unfinished with Tracy after thirteen years, but as he lets his guard down with Allison, anything can happen in the mystical paradise.

Intended as a love letter to Hawaii that opens with an old-fashioned Columbia Pictures logo and archival footage of the islanders, "Aloha" invites the viewer into the sunny milieu and its culture and history with a mellow, relaxed pace. The love triangle between Brian, Allison and Tracy might sound conventional, but they're all smart, free-thinking, charismatic characters who feel like they're living their lives rather than pushing a plot along, and that's not easy to do. But wait, there's more. Everything with space weapons and Brian's duty to launch the satellite into the stars is inaccessible and easily the least interesting facets of the story. Some of the Hawaiian spiritualism and mysticism get a little loopy (i.e. Brian and Allison either approach real apparitions or a group of reenactors at night on a misty road at night), but Cameron Crowe is respectful to the folklore and provides viewers with a few interesting tidbits.

Bradley Cooper has proven his worth as an invaluable contemporary leading man. As Brian Gilcrest, he begins as an emotionally guarded cynic, as one does, but his natural charisma helps him out, even when his motives aren't always as just as Allison thinks. As the loud-and-proud "one-quarter Hawaiian" Allison Ng, the unfailingly adorable Emma Stone is radiant and delightfully quirky as a young woman who's ever-chipper, even without any caffeine in her system. Rachel McAdams is lovely and sympathetic, doing a lot with a little as Tracy, who moved on with her life after Brian and upon her former flame's return doesn't immediately act selfishly like one might predict. John Krasinski is in an odd place as Woody, Tracy's husband who isn't one for communication after returning home from a mission and isn't a dummy to know that Brian's return has awakened something in his wife, but he makes it work. He turns a potential caricature into a good-hearted working man who loves his family, and in a couple of scenes set in his kitchen, the actor sells two wordless moments with amusing payoffs, one of which supplies subtitles. Other cast members are reliable but hurt by the screenplay and/or editing, like the great Bill Murray barely registering even when we only expect him to show up and be Bill Murray, but Danny McBride, as Brian's longtime friend Col. "Fingers" Lacy who now runs the base, and Alec Baldwin, as the intimidating four-star General Dixon, get to strut their stuff in a few moments.

"Aloha" is already something of a misunderstood oddity, but it wins over the viewer in spite of its faults. Sometimes disjointed but charming all the way, the film unashamedly wears its heart on its sleeve. Cameron Crowe still has a way with dialogue and an ear for music. Here, the character interactions between Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone sparkle and have a heightened screwball patter that flows with just enough authenticity to not make one cringe, despite a couple of lines seemingly taken from Rom-Com 101 ("I don't want to be another decal on your laptop!"). Likewise, Cooper and Rachel McAdams are so moving together and able to bring a history and pathos to Brian and Tracy from what Crowe wrote for them. On the musical side, Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" is more than welcome and a dance between Emma Stone and Bill Murray to Hall and Oates' "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)" at the Officers Club Christmas party is magical. The final scene, where Brian stands outside of a hula class of girls, also precariously verges on creepy, but it's not. Instead, it's sincere and sweet. The whole thing is messy, but "Aloha" might just have you at…aloha.

Grade: B - 

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