Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip) Talks Cameron Crowe’s Aloha

Does the level of animosity aimed at this new film from a once-beloved writer-director point at deeper cultural issues?

I’d like to begin this piece on Cameron Crowe’s new film, Aloha, by talking about a movie that doesn’t exist. It stars a newcomer named Danielle Rose Russell, an appealing performer with a limited list of credits and with whom the audience has little or no preexisting identification. Rachel McAdams and John Krasinski play her parents and the film focuses on the familial unrest and turmoil that occurs when one of the mother’s ex-boyfriends shows up in town. The family unit is disrupted as old secrets are brought to light, but in the end everything works out and people learn a little and grow a little because the filmmakers believe this is how life works. It features a soundtrack of pleasant music that I find tedious and repetitive, premieres at a nice film festival, sells for a ton of money and is eventually released as a piece of quality independent cinema, despite being very traditional and entirely safe. It is warmly anticipated, and packaged and sold to an audience that is satisfied with the transaction.

The movie above cosmetically resembles Aloha, which does in fact feature appealing newcomer Danielle Rose Russell, whose parents are, yes, played by Rachel McAdams and John Krasinski and whose family life is also upset when mom’s ex-boyfriend Bradley Cooper appears. But Cameron Crowe isn’t some young person trying to make a safe, Hollywood-looking film with independent means in order to prove himself and establish his career. Cameron Crowe is one of cinema’s best and most respected chroniclers of adult ennui. He even won an Oscar for it. I imagine he is probably a pretty mellow guy, a familiar Baby Boomer type who believes that adults are messy but capable of change. I have always truly enjoyed and been affected by his work, rare films that examine emotional duress from a masculine perspective. There aren’t a lot of sensitive-guy movies, and there aren’t a lot of Cameron Crowe movies, so I really look forward to each new one.

Singles, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous are all justly regarded as Good Movies, if not Great Movies. But something seems to have happened to Crowe or, more specifically, to the public’s attitude towards him and the type of films he makes. His 2005 film Elizabethtown is widely considered an unwatchable disaster but I remember enjoying it in much the same way somebody 10 years younger than me might enjoy the imagined festival hit I described in the first paragraph. I didn’t understand why people were suddenly dismissing Crowe for continuing, in my opinion, to excel at exactly the type of filmmaking he was known for.

I also remember enjoying We Bought a Zoo, some six years later. I thought it was classic Crowe, yet again featuring an alpha-male type portrayed by one of our most famous and capable actors. (Self-promotion disguised as full disclosure: when I saw We Bought a Zoo I said to myself, “Wow, Patrick Fugit, whom I only really know from Almost Famous, has grown up into a really interesting actor. I’d love to work with him.” And now I have, in my new film Queen of Earth, which IFC Films is releasing at some point later this year.)

I honestly don’t know why people aren’t more into Cameron Crowe, or at least wanting him to succeed. Maybe it’s some sort of grown-up version of instinctively disliking things that your parents either like or are likely to like. People commonly decry the overabundance of Marvel movies, remakes, self-serious Christopher Nolan films, etc., saying there aren’t any original movies “for adults” that don’t insult your intelligence. However, now one such film has come along, and there is, for whatever reason, a sort of eagerness for it to fail, with people anticipating hating exactly the kind of work that is sadly lacking in mainstream film culture.

So, all that being said, I couldn’t have gone into Aloha rooting for it more. Though the mumbo-jumbo opening voiceover left me confused as to what Bradley Cooper’s job is (he seems to have been an astronaut and Air Force pilot who’s now a private contractor designated to help Bill Murray build rocket-launching platforms in Hawaii), Aloha starts off pretty swell. There is an early scene in which Cooper re-encounters ex-girlfriend McAdams and simultaneously meets Emma Stone for the first time, and it’s dazzling filmmaking. The whole scene is (or at least appears to be) one shot, handheld, circling the three characters for probably two minutes. It is fast, alive and exciting in a way that shows Crowe’s inspiration from his hero, Billy Wilder.

For about the first hour, Aloha captures the messiness of adult life — like many previous Crowe protagonists, Cooper’s Brian Gilcrest is a real fuck-up — and I felt Crowe pulled this off as well as he ever has. At one point, Gilcrest (whose confusing military background is established by what I think was just a clip of Cooper in American Sniper) shows Air Force Captain Ng (Emma Stone) that he has just two toes on his right foot, and one of them initially belonged to someone else. (Stone, like Richard Gere in Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August, is playing a character of Asian-Hawaiian heritage.) There are numerous shots of Cooper’s Frankentoe. It’s never mentioned again and he doesn’t appear to wear special shoes or walk with any sort of difficulty.

There is some dialogue that stuck out to me at first, before I remembered other, well-regarded lines in earlier Crowe films. Stone and Cooper briefly witness some ritual that can supposedly kill those who look directly at it. She feels his pulse and says she is “checking to make sure we are still alive” to which he responds, “Are we?” while looking at her and smoldering. Later, when Cooper grabs a soda rather than a beer from McAdams’ fridge, she tells him that he should “just have what he really wants” and he responds, “Do you have what you really want?” referring not to cold beverages but the life she now has made without him. There are echoes here of lines such as “You had me at hello,” from Jerry Maguire and the moment in Almost Famous when, after the “Tiny Dancer” singalong, Patrick Fugit says, “I need to go home,” and Kate Hudson replies, “You are home.” My point is, Aloha doesn’t have cheesy, silly dialogue, it has Cameron Crowe dialogue, and I am capable of going along with it if the rest of the movie is working and I enjoying watching the actors. Crowe always gets excellent actors and they tend to do solid work for him; the same is true here.

Unfortunately, Aloha also has a sequence so bad, unwarranted and illogical that it’s basically unforgivable but, more accurately, is just a shame. Suddenly, in this nice movie about sloppy adult problems, the Chinese are hacking a U.S. satellite which is about to be launched, and then Cooper saves the day but then remembers something from earlier and downloads, like, the entire history of recorded sound onto the satellite, which makes it explode, and now his ass is on the line for insubordination. There’s also some initially important-seeming but eventually abandoned and unresolved subplot involving Cooper negotiating the return of land and the promise of cellphone reception to native Hawaiians, further confusing me about exactly what his job is.

Aloha is uneven at best and lesser Crowe at worst, but that’s still a pretty good thing. I liked it more than that other “Baby Boomer Director Goes To Hawaii With Big Movie Star” movie from a few years ago, starring George Clooney, but that was nominated for a bunch of Oscars, and Aloha is a film people seemingly want to fail. Not me, though. I suppose it’s indicative of our rotten, cynical culture, in which the greatest appreciation of things is purely ironic, that Aloha is apparently doomed to play to empty theaters while Vin Diesel movies about flying cars not only make money but also earn the respect and admiration of people who purport to care about cinema. There’s nothing ironic about Aloha or Cameron Crowe, so perhaps this moment in time just won’t be kind to him or his filmmaking. Crowe’s working on a pilot for Showtime at the moment, and that move to TV seems smart; maybe on the small screen he’ll get the appreciation he deserves.

Alex Ross Perry was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in 1984. He attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and worked at Kim’s Video in Manhattan. His second film, The Color Wheel, was distributed theatrically in 2012 and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award; his third, Listen Up Philip, premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.