After watching and re-watching its trailer a few times, I wanted to like Aloha. I wanted to like it a lot. While the trailer didn’t show any discernible plot beyond the comedy-drama standards of ex-girlfriends and jaded leading men, it felt like a throwback to the sentimental dramas of the ’90s. For two-and-a-half minutes, Aloha looks like it could be fun. Unfortunately, Aloha offers little more than its trailer. At 105 minutes, the film is short and scattered but somehow manages to feel much longer and unfocused.
Far less serious than he was in American Sniper, Bradley Cooper plays Brian Gilcrest, a defense contractor who, well, it’s kind of unclear what he does, but we’re led to believe by voiceover and exposition that he’s a cynical, “sad city coyote” of a man. After something goes horribly wrong — and unexplained — in Kabul, Afghanistan, Brian returns to Hawaii for “a crappy second chance.” On his return to Hawaii, Gilcrest reunites with Tracy (Rachel McAdams), an old flame he hasn’t scene in 13 years. Tracy is married to Woody (John Krasinski), a laconic pilot who doesn’t like to talk about his feelings. During his five scheduled days in Hawaii, Gilcrest is escorted around by Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), whose chipper personality clashes with Gilcrest’s in that way rom-com couples always do. The predictable love triangles begin to take shape.
Stone is believably peppy — and occasionally manic — as Captain Ng, though her character’s portrayal becomes problematic when we learn she is supposed to be one-quarter Hawaiian and one quarter Chinese — and half Swedish. In a Hawaiian-set movie with a nearly all-white cast, Stone’s casting raises questions. But writer-director Cameron Crowe would rather we focus on something else, so Aloha shifts into music video-like montages of Captain Ng jogging and looking indefatigably happy.
Its trailer makes sure to remind us that Aloha comes from Crowe, the writer-director of “Jerry Maguire,” but comparisons with the classic 1996 movie do not in favor Aloha. While both could be accused of being just a little too sentimental, Aloha never earns its emotional payoff. As a result, a final scene intended to work as a tearjerker leaves the viewer uncomfortably dry-eyed while Cooper’s eyes begin to water. (Maybe it was just easier to get away with that kind of sappiness in the ’90s.)
Even though there may be more offenses to enumerate, Aloha still manages to be enjoyable in a heartfelt, if embarrassing, way. One thing Aloha succeeds in is putting beautiful people in pretty places. As wonderful as it is to see Cooper and Stone exchange clunky, barbed dialogue, the movie’s $37 million budget tries to up the stakes by placing these conversations on scenic Hawaiian hillsides. Recent movies like The Descendants got more out of their Hawaiian setting without ever feeling as offensively touristy as Aloha does.
During its brief (and occasionally unbearable) runtime, Aloha searches for something of substance to say but can’t quite decide what that is. During the movie’s first half, Captain Ng and Tracy’s son Mitchell (Jaeden Lieberher) refer repeatedly to Hawaiian mythology and history, but by its third act “Aloha” seems to have settled on becoming an indictment of military privatization. Neither of these emphases are convincing on their own, but perhaps some forethought could have provided a through line to unify the movie and save it from meandering.
Aloha isn’t so much a trainwreck as it is an example of wasted potential. The movie’s cast is up to the task, and it even livens up the movie’s most expositional and cliche dialogue. But Aloha’s wandering narrative proves too much to bear, and though scenes work individually, their work is quickly undone by the next scene’s unrelated focus. Crowe has proved himself capable of directing movies with palpable heart and conviction. Regrettably, Aloha never reaches the heights of Say Anything’s John Cusack holding a boombox over his head or Jerry Maguire’s “You had me at hello.” We’ll always have those movies, but Aloha never shows us the money.