Hawaii is supposedly the most recently inhabited place on Earth, the last place on the planet that human beings could discover. Hawaiian historian Herb Kane liked to say that everyone in Hawaii came from somewhere else — including Hawaiians.
And so, Hawaii is a place of arrivals and departures, of hellos and goodbyes, and all this helloing and goodbyeing is likely the reason filmmaker Cameron Crowe chose “Aloha” as the title of his latest movie. We all know the various meanings ascribed to the word. We all know that aloha is a word used lightly, casually and sometimes irresponsibly, but it is also a word fraught with great power and stunning depths. As such, the word is also a weapon, an agitprop tool, particularly when wielded with identity politics.
That’s a lot of baggage to hang on to a movie title. Especially a movie as slight as “Aloha.” You’d get more traction picketing Aloha Stadium. When it was filming here, the movie was called “Cameron Crowe’s Unnamed Project,” and Sony Pictures revealed the real title only a few months ago. Perhaps the studio was anticipating blowback. More likely, it was a marketing decision made far away from Hawaii and it was the only Hawaiian word they could remember.
That’s what it feels like. The word “aloha” is rarely used in the film, and not in any portentous way. The movie should have been called “Shaka Sign,” given the excessive finger-wiggling by the characters.
Bradley Cooper is a long, long way from “American Sniper” as a down-on-his-luck defense contractor who returns to Hawaii in the employ of a smarmy billionaire (Bill Murray, delightfully opaque here). He reconnects with a former girlfriend (Rachel McAdams, sunny and oblivious), plus her husband and kids, but the real developing relationship at the heart of the film is the budding romance between the jaded contractor and a female fighter pilot assigned as his escort. She’s played by blonde, blue-eyed Emma Stone, and she is supposedly one-quarter Hawaiian and her surname is Ng. We all know quarter-Hawaiians who look like that, but her character declares it so often during the course of the film that it could have been a running joke.
Except that it wasn’t. It falls mostly flat. The real problem with “Aloha” is that it strives to be an airy rom-com with charming characters; but alas and auwe, much of it is awkward and disjointed. There’s no real chemistry between Cooper’s character and his lady co-stars, and that’s pretty deadly to the concept. There are tonal shifts throughout and the actors aren’t on the same page. Cooper and Stone seem to think they’re in a TV satire skit — Stone’s fighter pilot is a cartoon of a military officer — while McAdams gamely romps in Nicholas Sparks soaper territory.
The two actors that make a deeper impression are John Krasinski as McAdams’ taciturn husband and newcomer Danielle Rose Russell as their daughter. She’s the one who gives some heart to “Aloha.”
Also on board is Alec Baldwin as a crabby Air Force general (I’ve lost count of how many times Baldwin enters a movie just at the point it desperately needs a comic lift), and Hawaiian sovereignty activist Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele as a Native Hawaiian leader who’s a shrewd negotiator, which is why Kanahele is apparently playing himself here. Interestingly, the only other film Kanahele is credited in is the documentary “Aloha State,” so that’s two alohas for Bumpy.
Yeah, it’s a white, white top cast. “Aloha” should have had a little more color in the ranks, even if the primary character is a local “haole,” or Caucasian. (Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” worked because it was about local haoles, and it nailed them artfully. We could even tell they were Nuuanu haoles, a distinct subspecies.) Kanahele’s “character” is treated with respect, and we get some tasty slack-key from Ledward Kaapana and other musicians on screen, but the folks missing in action here are Asians. And Portuguese. And Pacific Islanders. And others in our rainbow of combined cultures here in the islands.
Including them just for the sake of being inclusive, though, is antithetical to clean storytelling. “Aloha” feels too sloppily constructed, however, for the whiteness to be anything other than an oversight. Crowe clearly has some Hawaii issues on his plate, such as the sovereignty movement and the internecine military-industrial complex, and also a fairly nifty twist on the South Point Spaceport fiasco of the 1980s. It’s not a stupid movie and there are real issues at hand. Points for trying.
These aren’t plot-hanging points, however. Crowe’s forte is a kind of off-kilter and deadpan humor and much of “Aloha” is funny. You can forgive a lot in exchange for a little funny. There’s not enough, though.
“Aloha” is a pleasant and engaging enough light entertainment, despite its awkward pacing and tonal misfires. It just doesn’t hold up under closer analysis.
Hawaii fans near and far might be disappointed in the rather few exterior shots of the islands. Much was filmed in the interior of Hickam Air Force base housing and in the base Officers Club, still a grand historic structure. Military buffs will be disappointed in the brief flying sequences, and will also be annoyed with the way Stone’s character wears her uniform overseas cap. It’s not squared away, and her character is supposed to be just that. You get the feeling that Crowe doesn’t sweat the details.