For Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), the military contractor at the center of writer-director Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, the thrill of discovery and wonder of space have dulled over the years, due to a career based on visiting war zones, to say nothing of almost being killed by a rocket. Subsequently, he’s become the favored contractor of Carson Welch (Bill Murray), the richest man in America, who asks him to oversee the launch of his own private satellite in Hawaii, which Carson has secretly armed with an explosive payload. Crowe’s script marries this storyline with Brian’s love triangle with Allison Ng (Emma Stone), his military liaison, and his ex-girlfriend, Tracy (Rachel McAdams), which serves as a glaringly obvious narrative reflection of Brian’s inability to decide between a lucrative future defined by indifference or possibly giving up everything he’s worked for to be true to his passion for space and its seemingly infinite possibilities.
The plotting of these interwoven arcs is predictable throughout, such as the scarcely surprising 12th-hour reveal that Brian is a father. Much of the film is gripped by a startling repetitiveness, volleying as it does between Tracy and Brian discussing their breakup, Allison and Brian talking about the moral and legal issues with the aforementioned launch, or Carson reminding Brian that he can ruin him if things don’t go smoothly. Unsurprisingly, the few sequences that don’t involve these elements are the most fascinating, from Tracy’s relationship with her new husband, Woody (John Krasinski), to Brian’s relationship with Bumpy (Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele), the king of the local native islanders. Brian and Bumpy are old friends, and in their scenes together, Cooper and Kanahele bring out both a long personal history between the men and the complications that have come between them now that Brian is working for people who want to essentially buy native Hawaiian culture. Tracy and Woody’s exchanges are similarly intimate in detailing the hardships of being married to a soldier, which is balanced out with a handful of uniquely uproarious scenes, such as Allison and Carson squaring off on the dance floor, with Stone and Murray matching each other’s increasingly goofy and inventive gesticulations and body moving.
Crowe’s lively cast, which also includes Alec Baldwin and Danny McBride as military honchos, enliven the intermittently charming script by adding dimensions of physicality and thoughtful timing to their deliveries. But it’s Carson, as preposterously greedy and maniacal as Lex Luthor, who’s the film’s ace in the hole, and not just because he’s played by Murray. Late into the film, the man looks up to the sky, and Murray’s visage reveals a mix of desperation, regret, and mad, unending love for the promise and discovery above, something that Carson will likely have a limited view of following his scheme to essentially own space. It’s a complexity of character that Crowe’s style, a bland mix of handheld camerawork and stationary shots, never quite evinces.
Crowe’s aesthetic leans heavily on musical cues to direct the audience on how to feel, most egregiously in the use of Justin Vernon’s songs to underscore moments of romance and regret. Whereas the music from Singles and Almost Famous served to chart the development of characters’ tastes or discovery of music as a soundtrack to their own adventurous, imaginative inner lives, the music here suggests nothing more than an admittedly groovy Spotify playlist.
Aloha’s outrageously sentimental view of pop culture is such that the power of pop music, movies, and television is enough to literally stop a control-freak billionaire from weaponing space for his own good. After a while, the film’s sing-a-song-for-the-world vibe, so buoyantly optimistic at first, becomes grating and smug. Maybe if Crowe wasn’t so flimsy with characterization, his depiction of imagination and intellect overriding cynicism and paranoia wouldn’t feel so flippant. Though Brian has a history of corruption and immoral compromise, Cooper’s performance barely conveys these darker impulses, even when he acts gruff and tough with Allison; the man is so playful that the troubled, shady parts of his persona feel washed out. In the end, Crowe’s consideration of character and the story’s political dimensions reflects the very innocuousness of the film’s title.