Say Anything…: Aloha (C-)

The final scene of Cameron Crowe’s Aloha is just about impossibly perfect.

Wordless, moving, engaging, tearjerking, entrenched in native Hawaiian culture: this is everything Aloha could have been for its preceding two hours, and just about everything about Aloha that we might want to preserve for posterity’s sake.

What teenager Danielle Rose Russell does in this scene… it’s the announcement of something big, of the kind of presence that can own a massive screen, take every inch of it and turn into pure, unfiltered feelings broadcast straight into the collective brainspace of an entire theater. To some extent, it validates much of what Crowe’s latest melodramacomedy has to say about the value of communication… but, I’ll be honest, mostly you’ll be thinking “Where WAS this girl the whole movie?”

Russell plays Grace Woodside, the (mostly invisible) daughter of Tracy Woodside (Rachel McAdams), our protagonist Brian Gilcrest’s (Bradley Cooper) old flame from 13 years back. Grace Woodside is 12 years old. Draw your own conclusions from those numbers, because the movie pretty much begs us to do so when it announces this fact early on.

Everyone glances around awkwardly when this is first brought up, but no one says anything. As it turns out, all three principals – alpha-male-of-the-moment Cooper as Jerry McGilcrest, McAdams doing really fine work as an ex who prefers compassion over scorn, and John Krasinski as Tracy’s current husband Woody – know exactly what those numbers mean (they’re not idiots), but they are not going to talk about it right now. Because in the world of Aloha no one really talks to anyone. That is the whole point.

Gilcrest is a wounded mercenary who’s had his innocent dreams of government-sponsored space travel squashed at every turn. He’s turned inward. Keep all conversations to 5 words or less, he barks at his Air Force handler (more on her later). “Good… Super Good…” he mutters unconvincingly in response to any questions about his state of being.

In any ordinary film, this cartoonishly anti-social man’s man would be the most inarticulate character, but Crowe also gives us Woody, whose whole schtick is his monosyllabic nature. Poor Rachel McAdams is forced to say it about ten different ways – “Woody never talks.”

This isn’t a nagging wife complaining about a lack of communication, mind you. As Gilcrest comes to discover when he visits the Woodside’s military base home, Woody’s vocal cords may very well have atrophied. His entire lexicon is comprised of nods, shrugs, smirks, and firm shoulder grabs. The film makes a big joke of the fact that Brian understands this macho posturing – first by having Brian translate it for an oblivious Tracy and then, in the movie’s cathartic confrontation between the two men, by having the entire silent conversation play out via subtitles (a cheap gag that’s a huge mistake).

A trophy then for Ms. McAdams, who is Aloha’s real hero. There is every opportunity for her to play Tracy as resentful, shrewish, uncommunicative, or cold; pretty much any other family drama in this vein would have asked her to do so. Trapped as she is in the middle of this masculine staring contest, it’s a small miracle then that she opts to play Tracy as warm, forgiving, and immensely willing to share (a characterization, to be fair, that is in Crowe’s otherwise ludicrous script). She treats her ex-lover not like an enemy but like an old friend, opening up to him about her troubles with Woody, warning him to shut her down if she treats him too much like a “girl friend” (which the film makes clear Tracy feels like she’s lacking). It is clear that all of this “not talking” is eating her up inside, and that keeping that one big secret that is so glaringly obvious everyone knows it but refuses to confront it has really done a number on her. When she finally confronts Brian about it, relief comes immediately. She is such an open book that even her kids can tell early on, when Brian first arrives, that her surly mood is a put-on and that she’s happy to have Brian back around.

Oh yeah, her kids… So Brian ends up bonding with one of them over stars and stuff. Somehow, in a boneheaded screenwriting mix-up, it’s the wrong one. You see, Tracy and Woody have a younger child that is actually theirs, and he is literally around for three reasons:

  1. To carry around the always-running camera that will eventually reveal an important plot point to an important character
  2. To spout symbolic non-sequiturs about Brian coming back on the same week when the Hawaiian god Lono is supposed to return nudge nudge
  3. To remind us when things look especially open for a Brian/Tracy reunion that there’s a moppet out there whose real dad is Woody, so it would be a bit messier then a simple separation so don’t get your hopes up shippers…

All three of these are shoddy screenwriting contrivances, but even if they had been necessary (and all of them do more harm then good to the film’s tone, so they’re not), only one of them couldn’t have been taken over by Russell’s Grace. You, really need a kid for Brian to bond over stars and native mythology with? Fine, how about his daughter? Need a precocious camera-toter to move the plot along? How about the kid that’s already important to the plot?

Instead the film gives her nothing. Literally. Nothing. She hula dances and looks for a dress for a school dance. She casts her eyes downward and mumbles out of the room whenever Brian’s around, which – considering he is the star of the film – is always. You’d think, with the way this character’s been taken out of the equation in spite of her existence driving the movie’s drama and being important enough to warrant last-scene status, that Russell must be absolutely toxic as an actress, and they just loved that little boy so much, they gave him all her scenes. But then you see Russell cycle through every emotion possible as she discovers the truth behind why everyone’s been skulking around silently since Brian arrived; you see her eyes well with tears, her face light up; you see the slight change in her hula dancing before she knows and after she knows.

And you wonder: how on earth did Cameron Crowe luck into the next Shailene Woodley in The Descendants discovery, and then only use that power in one scene?!

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It would appear Cameron Crowe is going to direct a film about a man who has been embarrassingly ejected from an already embarrassing profession who finds redemption in the arms of a woman who is sometimes horrified by his callousness while still absolutely worshiping the ground upon which he walks… oh about every ten years or so.

It’s like clockwork. Is it the middle of the decade? Then you can probably bet that somewhere, in a theater near you, an optimistic blond is coaxing a stymied failure of a man out of his funk.

And lo and behold, we have Aloha, which sees a brilliant but down on his luck(sports agent/ad man) space science mercenary (?) go through the ringer while taking some solace in the fact that, in spite of his surliness, that blond(co-worker/flight attendant) Air Force pilot still believes in him.

How can that entire plot fit in the movie when all the plot points I previously mentioned about Tracy, Woody, and Grace (who literally provides the movie’s grace note) have no connection to either Brian’s work failures or his budding romance with that woman whose eyes light up when he walks in the room?

Ummm… Go see the movie and tell me… Your guess is as good as mine would be.

Because they don’t fit. At all. All of the movie’s most dramatic, cathartic, joyful, and romantic scenes deal with the Woodside’s (and that’s in spite of all the issues we already discussed). Lets’ see why:

  • Tracy has a secret that’s been eating her up
  • Brian doesn’t know, and once he does, he’s not sure how to navigate the minefield
  • Woody does know and it’s been killing this otherwise stoic guy

This is engrossing drama. How is this not the main plot of the movie? Better yet, how is this not a Rachel McAdams movie? When the director doesn’t get in the way (as with the too-cute subtitles) we see the best of Crowe only at those times when McAdams’ storyline is involved. But see what the driving force behind all those scenes is, and you’ll see why he can make them work so well, why Woody’s letter is so good, why the decapitated Santa joke lands so well. This is the man whose directorial debut was Say Anything, and more than 25 years later, that is still his chief obsession: saying things. Crowe has always been known for his bordering-on-glib/saccharine prose; this film is an argument for making the effort to say those things, even if they’re trite, even if it’s awkward, even if you can’t find the words. When it’s at its best, Aloha is a movie about going out of your way to make communication possible. The drama may as well be boiled down to Say something, I’m giving up on you.

So how well does that theme carry over to the film’s numero uno concern – the courtship of Brian Gilcrest and Allison Ng (Emma Stone)? Well, it’s vaguely present. Brian isn’t quite reaching Woody levels of terseness, but he is very forthright about his lack of desire to form a connection. Allison is chipper and ebullient (in essence, she is Emma Stone), but she is not being the same person around Brian that she is with, umm, whomever she’s speaking with on the phone when Brian accidentally hears their conversation so the plot can move forward. That’s a weird, manipulative way to get the real talk started, and it gets even weirder when the film implies that if accidental spying can’t get these two crazy kids over their differences so they can fall in love already, then the ancient Hawaiian spirits will just have to help!

Crowe seems to be insinuating that, as Allison and Brian fight and flirt their way across the Hawaiian landscape, the ancient spirits are cheering them on from the side of the road. At one point, those spirits rustle some trees to stop a shouting match and get the leads to make googly eyes at each other for the first time. At another point, the sky seems to tell certain characters it’s sad, which kinda sorta drives Brian’s climactic decision. Does this happen because Brian is, in some way, the god Lono, as that precocious moppet keeps saying? Who knows? Aloha never commits to this idea, or any idea about native Hawaiians. A film like Song of the Sea fully engages with the idea that the beautiful, ancient beliefs of a forgotten or marginalized people coexist with our modern world in strange ways. But Crowe’s film nods to spiritualism when he needs it to, and then backs the heck off when the plot kicks in. Which means that by the time Bumpy, the leader of a nationalist organization seeking Hawaiian independence (playing himself) looks helplessly, mournfully up at the sky as a nuclear payload is secreted into orbit, it’s a strange reminder of a movie about Hawaii (and not just set there) that hasn’t existed since the film’s first thirty minutes.

Maybe, given some breathing room, this Hawaiian angle could have worked, especially if Bumpy had been allowed to become a more prominent character with some agency. As it is, it’s surprising to see how prominent he is initially considering the uproar that preceded the film; he has so much agency, so much presence. But then he agrees to a deal with Brian and the military. You wait for him to come back, and you wait for him to come back, and when he does, he’s a set of sad eyes, regretting his decision to allow Brian to do whatever it is he’s doing, wondering what will become of the future.

Which brings us to Brian’s professional life… Is Cameron Crowe being serious with us here?!

  • Does Bradley Cooper really stop a nuclear weapon from hovering ominously over the globe by shooting rock music at it?
  • Does he really do it because Emma Stone’s tear soaked face is too beautiful to bare?
  • Does he really foil the dastardly plans of pre-captivity Tony Stark as played by Bill Murray?
  • Does Alec Baldwin’s Air Force General really shoot privately-funded satellites into space without checking them for weapons?

This stuff doesn’t even deserve a deconstruction. What it is that Brian does for a living is entirely unclear: are we really supposed to believe that the same guy who helps a billionaire negotiate with Native Hawaiians for cell phone service and mountains is also his resident genius scientist and hacker responsible for keeping the Chinese locked out? Really, these aren’t two different guys? They seem like two different skill sets to me.

Brian’s history is so convoluted that whenever someone brings it up – his breakup 13 years ago; the time he left the military and joined the private sector; the time he left the private sector and sold his soul in Kabul; the time he returned injured, tail between his legs, to the private sector; the time he used the private sector to get back in with the military – it’s like reading the Wikipedia entry on a superhero that’s been around for decades. Like you’re skimming something vast and confusing without any reference to the specifics that would make all that stuff feel real and genuine.

If this were seasoning on the movie, that might be okay. There have been plenty of romances and screwball comedies that have seasoned their stories with professional mumbo jumbo jargon and made it out no worse for wear. Heck, some of those are classics. But this isn’t seasoning. It’s the main course. It drives everything that happens between Allison and Brian. The meet-cute. The first kiss. The complication. The big gesture. The reconciliation. It’s all military space orbit nonsense, and climaxes in one of the most dramatically inert set pieces imaginable. The stakes of this movie are about communication with loved ones, and suddenly, the stakes are about keeping the world safe. A movie audience can’t handle that kind of errant escalation. And sure this only happens because Brian keeps a secret he shouldn’t, and Allison comes to discover that the military is much like the Woodside house – no one is telling anyone else the full story – so, yeah, thematically, the connections are there if you want to reach really far out and grab them. But ultimately, the thematic rollover doesn’t matter; watching Allison sit on the ground and cry while Bumpy looks sadly skyward and evil Bill Murray smirks from a distant launch platform, all while Brian and some programmer we JUST MET, play music at a CGI sattelite until it breaks… that’s just bad moviemaking, plain and simple.

It’s not all as bad as that. On a scene-by-scene level, the good Crowe shines through often enough. But ultimately, seeing a cute scene where Emma Stone and Bill Murray drunkenly dance together only serves to satisfy in the moment, checking off an item on every film nerd’s bucket list (see Emma Stone and Bill Murray dance together). In the grand scheme of things, it just confuses things. The two characters never interact meaningfully otherwise, and it sends the audience the wrong messages about Murray’s character. It’s just there to… be there.

So, even though the last scene of the film – that tour de force from the otherwise ignored Danielle Rose Russell – is truly magical, it isn’t the ending to the film Crowe made. It’s the ending to a better film that was hidden within. The film Crowe made was about space and the appeal of Emma Stone, not about fathers and daughters. The film had already ended by the time it got to its epilogue. But I’m glad it kept going. No dialogue. Just body language. Just Brian standing there until Grace got it, truly understood what he was saying. (Thank god Crowe didn’t break out those subtitles again.)

Ninety percent of the reason this scene works so well is Russell, but ten percent is because her character never got dragged down by the film’s weaker subplots. She never talked about mana. She never talked about nukes. Sure, she never talked about anything. But in her final scene, Russell didn’t have to say a word and she said more than anyone else in Aloha said all movie.