Cameron Crowe, always something of a film historian, puts plenty of Frank Capra(corn) into his new film, “Aloha.” You know, the Frank Capra who loved to celebrate the little guy who bucks a corrupt system or an ex-fraud who turns tables on fellow fraudsters.
Crowe has disguised this well as the movie is gussied up like a Hawaiian luau with leis, hula dancing and references to Polynesian mythology. Yet in essence this is the simple story of a man who sold his soul then discovers the means to buy it back.
The challenge for a movie fan is that this luau atmosphere amid an old-fashioned military comedy obscures that simple story of a man torn between two ethical paths — and between two women. Awkward story construction and too many peripheral characters without clear plans of action continually disrupt the comedy.
The movie has even provoked controversy, clearly among those who haven’t seen the film, with some Asian-Americans slamming “Aloha” for ignoring Hawaii’s native culture. Since that culture gets featured prominently in the storyline and native leader Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahle plays a key role in the movie the charges are spurious.
Crowe supposedly spent several years researching and writing this story but it comes at you in too hurried a manner with the protagonist, defense contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), trying to explain to you in a voiceover who he is and what happened to him back in Afghanistan even as he is flying into Hawaii’s Hickam Field military base.
Then the movie’s two female stars, Rachel McAdams and Emma Stone, get rushed before the camera, each casting possessive glances at Brian even as you struggle to grasp who’s who and why either one cares about him.
Soon enough you get the picture: McAdams’ Tracy Woodside used to be his girlfriend over a decade ago but has gone on to marry an Air Force pilot and raise a family. Stone’s Captain Allison Ng, also an Air Force pilot, has been assigned by someone to baby sit the apparently talented but erratic Brian.
Oh, that Brian!
Even as these characters sort themselves out Bill Murray wanders in, miscast as an eccentric Richard Branson-like billionaire industrialist, then comic actor Danny McBride turns up as a base commander whose only job seems to be impulsively flexing the fingers on his right hand.
Before you know it, looks are getting exchanged between Cooper and the two women but just as swiftly he’s off to negotiate with a native independence movement leader (the Kanahele role). Then Alec Baldwin drops in as a blow-hard general who grabs a drink and sneers at Cooper.
Man, that Brian certainly knew how to lose friends and impress the wrong people. What exactly did he do in Afghanistan?
So it’s a cluttered and confusing first act that seems utterly out of keeping with the “Take It Easy” tenor of Hawaiian life. More troubling, writer-director Crowe spends so much time setting up subplots, including a launch into space of a major payload by Murray’s eccentric billionaire, that his main storyline — Brian and his two women —gets lost.
It’s hard to know if Crowe, the conscience craftsman of “Jerry Mcguire,” “Say Anything…” and “Almost Famous,” really wrote such a poorly constructed first act or if difficulties on the set or in the editing room resulted in the herky-jerky beginning.
When the tropical thunder finally dissipates, it becomes clear that our Brian often takes an expedient if not unethical approach to his job, which explains why no one fully trusts him.
He takes a similar approach to his love life as Tracy, despite a loving husband, Woody (John Krasknski), and a two adorable kids (Jaeden Lieberhar, Danielle Rose Russell, both excellent), is still troubled by the abrupt termination of their affair so many years before.
Meanwhile Ng is falling for his Mr. Smooth charm and Brian finds himself caught between the woman he left behind and the woman looking for a new beginning.
Nothing explains why anyone looks at this Brian as anything but a con artist other than the fact that the charismatic Cooper, one of Hollywood’s most talented and popular stars at the moment, is playing him. Has Cooper already reached Cary Grant status?
Come to think of it, the third act, meant to resolve all these dilemmas, is something of a shambles too as the accoutrements of a spy melodrama — a flash drive slipped into a pocket, a surreptitious home video, a billionaire’s dirty secret — all play a role in presenting Brian with a crisis of conscience.
Perhaps it’s the Aloha spirit but the film leaves you in a good enough mood for a movie that’s so messy and disorganized. Plus that false happy ending arriving with a Capracorn flourish has the soothing effect of a couple of Mai-Tais.
Which doesn’t mean the Mai-Tais take the edge off all those superfluous characters and misguided scenes. In the end, you may feel like you just spent your entire Hawaiian vacation separating the quarreling kids, treating a bad sunburn and wishing you hadn’t taken those surfboarding lessons.
Opens: May 29, 2015 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: Columbia Pictures and Regency Enterprises in association with LStar Capital Ratpac Entertainment present a Scott Rudin/Vinyl Films production
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasknski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Bill Camp, Jaeden Lieberhar, Danielle Rose Russell
Director/screenwriter: Cameron Crowe
Producer: Scott Rudin, Cameron Crowe
Executive producer: Ilona Hertzberg, Eli Bush, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Eric Gautier
Production designer: Clay Griffith
Music: Jónsi & Alex
Costume designer: Deborah L. Scott
Editor: Joe Hutshing
PG-13 rating, 105 minutes