How Cameron Crowe out-Crowed himself with 'Aloha'
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Cameron Crowe's movies are love letters to love, powered by the pulsations of big beating hearts that just want one thing: Two people to complete each other. "Vanilla Sky" aside, all of Crowe's movies follow a formula with a guy in search of redemption, a woman capable of giving it to him, some wacky supporting players, a few laughs and a happy resolution. The end.
He isn't the only director to keep pulling the same rabbit out of different hats. Woody Allen has been making the same three movies for his entire career and Michael Haneke's films are just an excuse to throw viewers into a deep depression.
But "Aloha," Crowe's latest, is a cautionary tale of a director being consumed by a monster of his own creation - a cartoon dragon type of monster that once seemed so friendly and innocuous. The movie follows disgraced former Air Force pilot Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), who returns to his old stomping ground in Hawaii and reconnects with his married ex-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams). He also falls for a by-the-book rising star, Capt. Allison Ng (Emma Stone), whose job is to make sure Brian stays out of trouble.
That doesn't sound so bad.
But emails leaked after the Sony hack gave us some inkling of what to expect from the long-delayed project, and the strict embargo on critic reviews only added to the sense of foreboding. Here's part of a message from former Sony chief Amy Pascal (with some poetic line breaks) about the movie:
"I'm never starting a movie again when the script is ridiculous
"And we all know it
"I don't care how much I love the director and the actors
"Not even once
Pascal was right. According to the email, the director was largely left to his own devices, and the result is that Crowe out-Crowed himself. He employed all of the go-to tricks that have worked for him in the past but in extremely conspicuous ways. Here are some examples.
- The music
Lloyd Dobbler with a boombox above his head, expressing his emotions through Peter Gabriel's lyrics. A whole busload of people belting out "Tiny Dancer." These are iconic moments from a director who got his start as a music reporter. He was so in-the-know that 1992's "Singles" featured Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder in bit roles just before the Soundgarden and Pearl Jam singers became defining '90s rock frontmen.
But what was once rousing or prescient has turned into a crutch. In "Aloha" music is a way to coerce the audience into feeling emotions because the script alone isn't cutting it. The evocative indie tunes by the likes of Josh Ritter, Jonsi & Alex and Beck are relentless, not to mention transparently manipulative. Crowe also commits a cardinal sin by wasting the greatness of "I Can't Go For That" by Hall & Oates on a bizarre and pointless dance sequence.
- The quippy banter
Crowe's movies are filled with people who speak in a bantery, unnatural dialect that exists only in the Crowe universe.
Here's Lloyd Dobbler from "Say Anything": "I don't want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought or processed, you know, as a career. I don't want to do that."
People totally talk like that! Not really, but the lines sound natural compared to "Aloha," where witty banter turns into another language altogether.
Let's call it quipese, a dialect unintelligible to a native English speaker. If anyone can deliver a fast-talking retort, it's Emma Stone, but even she can't make sense of dialogue that's sprinkled with non sequiturs about war injuries, decorative stickers and Hawaiian leprechauns.
If it weren't for all that music and certain visual cues - lingering looks between Brian and Allison while she plays the guitar alongside a group of native Hawaiians - it would be difficult to figure out how to feel.
- The precocious kid
Did you know that a human head weighs eight pounds? Of course you did. Everyone does, because little Jonathan Lipnicki told us back in 1996 playing a wise-beyond-his-years ankle-biter in "Jerry Maguire."
Jaeden Lieberher is that kid in "Aloha," and he's a typically adorable oddball with an encyclopedic knowledge of Hawaiian mythology. That information comes in handy when he's supplying the audience with background for a surreal subplot that suddenly evaporates mid-way through the movie. But he's also useful in other, more effective ways, as when he sneaks into a top secret Air Force hangar after hours, shoots video footage and shows his undercover surveillance to a key character.
- The guy whose redemption is contingent on the presence of an adorable woman whose own life is beside the point
Crowe's infamously bungled "Elizabethtown" was ridiculed, and Kirsten Dunst's one-dimensional character was a prime target. The role even spawned the now retired term "manic pixie dream girl." In truth, Dunst's character could have been played by a yellow helium balloon with a giant smiley face on it.
Allison is certainly more of a character, but she's so bewilderingly contradictory that it's hard to imagine why any thought went into her back story. One second, she's all business - "sir" this and "sir" that - and the next, she's dissolving into giggles, shielding her face with her hands like a flirtatious high schooler, or blatantly hitting on Brian. She's also a fighter pilot who doesn't believe there should be weapons in the air. But Crowe seems to think we won't quibble since she's such a cutie.
- The sense of place
"Elizabethtown" was Crowe's excuse to put his father's native Kentucky on screen, and "Singles" so perfectly captured the flannel and ripped jeans of Seattle in the early 1990s.
"Aloha" has been slightly more problematic. You can see that Crowe was taken with Hawaii, both its natural radiance and its singular culture. But some have been less than pleased with the way he portrayed the 50th state. Native Hawaiians and Asian Americans have complained about the title and cultural appropriation in a movie about a bunch of white people.
Sony even jumped into the fray. In a response to detractors, the company issued a statement that read: "While some have been quick to judge a movie they haven't seen and a script they haven't read, the film 'Aloha' respectfully showcases the spirit and culture of the Hawaiian people. Filmmaker Cameron Crowe spent years researching this project and many months on location in Hawaii, cultivating relationships with leading local voices. He earned the trust of many Hawaiian community leaders, including Dennis 'Bumpy' Kanahele, who plays a key role in the film."
- Abstract narration to set the mood
Kicking off a movie with voiceover is a Crowe mainstay, even if it doesn't add a lot to the story. "Jerry Maguire" begins with Tom Cruise babbling about the world's population while Orlando Bloom's character meditates on salmon swimming upstream using purple prose at the start of "Elizabethtown."
Both of those are essential dialogue compared to the way "Aloha" begins, as Cooper's Brian tries to sum up his entire life - 40 years or so - in about a minute. He was obsessed with stars as a kid and then he was a pilot, except he wasn't, and he was left for dead but now he's back ... or something.
- The far-fetched inauthenticity of it all
Crowe's movies are filled with farcical scenes: The talkative mime in "Singles," the office freak-out in "Jerry Maguire," the lone plane passenger in "Elizabethtown." Audiences can overcome singular instances of ridiculousness. If you think too hard, a near plane crash that leaves all of the characters spilling their guts in "Almost Famous" might be an irritatingly convenient way to push the plot forward, but it's also pretty amusing.
But when these types of moments bombard the viewer in a movie that tries to remain mostly self-serious, the tonal dissonance is overwhelming. "Aloha" contains supernatural events, a character who suddenly transitions from being a pilot to knowing rocket science, an entire conversation - with subtitles - conveyed through knowing looks and a Frankenstein toe.
Crowe's recurring message is still there, loud, clear and earnest as ever: Love will conquer all. But when the plot and characters are so utterly unbelievable and thoroughly confusing, the heartfelt sentiment starts to feel just as implausible.