Review: “Aloha” Movie

If it were any good, Cameron Crowe’s film “Aloha” could’ve made us wonder if Hawaiian culture is too hot for Hollywood to handle.
Photos: Courtesy of Sony Pictures 


Another film set in Hawai‘i, another tempest in a teapot—is there anything more to say about Aloha, the Cameron Crowe movie that opened today?


The erratic-but-occasionally-almost-great Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) has been a frequent visitor to the isles for a decade and evidently cultivated a love of local culture and contacts among sovereignty activists.


Then he made a bad movie about it. A bomb. One with both ‘ukes and nukes in it. (Oops, sorry—de post facto spoiler alert.)


Crowe’s aloha does show up on the screen. That usually isn’t the case when Hollywood does Hawai‘i, although recent films like The Descendants have made small kine steps look like major strides. Even television’s Hawai‘i Five-0 carved out time from the glam-and-guns infomercial for a significant episode involving Honouliuli Internment Camp. Then it was back to the chiseled repartee of actors holding laser-sighted automatics at funny angles.


In the case of Aloha, the movie starts with a genealogical chant, interrupted by a chuckle, referencing a famous story going back to the 1800s of a similar incident by a great chanter. (I did not know this going in: A cultural heavyweight at the screening enlightened me.) Hearing the chuckle, early reverent listeners assumed it was intentional and so incorporated it into future versions of the chant. That would seem to be an inside joke that begs the indulgence of knowledgeable and charitable locals.


The Anger Games

Comment began days before the films’s release. Janet Mock, MSNBC host of the program So POPular: “This is a movie,” said Mock, in which “whiteness is centered, and Hawai‘i and Hawaiian culture are appropriated, and Native Hawaiians are nowhere to be seen … ”


It was all true, too—of the 2:28 minute trailer, that is.


Condemnations and comments feeding the controversy also came in from Hawai‘i State Film Commissioner Donne Dawson, longtime activist Walter Ritte and the group Media Action Network for Asian Americans—all based on the trailer.


Within a day Sony, the company behind the film, had released a new unofficial trailer showing eight minutes of action featuring stars Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone with sovereignty activist Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele and his Pu‘uhonua o Waimānalo village, obtained as a leasehold after he agreed to end an occupation along the shores of Makapu‘u; Stone apparently playing slack-key with musicians Ledward Ka'apana and Mike Ka'awa; and footage of more than a dozen Native Hawaiians.


As a stroke of media manipulation, this trailer at least served to reset the argument until the film came out (it has since become really hard, as in impossible for me, to find on the Internet). That meant that we, the people, would have to actually see the entire movie before we could rush to judgment.


In other words, this may all have been Sony’s strategy when faced with the familiar problem: How do you market a bomb?


Based on a True Trailer

To be fair to the film, it is a lot more than a tale of two trailers.


No, Aloha is for fans of Bradley Cooper’s blue eyes and moments of maniacal energy a la Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Fans of Emma Stone’s exquisitely sculpted cheekbones and kewpie-doll eyes and moments of maniacal energy a la Birdman. Fans of seeing Bill Murray and Alec Baldwin play themselves, yet again, because they’re so good at it. Fans of Rachel McAdams’ dewy yearnful expression that will rock the world of any man within 50 yards of the screen.


Crowe also deploys his bag of tricks: the melt-your-heart scene from Jerry McGuire between Renee Zellweger and Tom Cruise has its counterpart here—several times; so does the sing-a-long “Tiny Dancer” scene from Almost Famous. Seeing these reprised will start you smiling, then leave you feeling sorry for everyone involved.


What else can we say? That we laughed? Yes, ultra-fast editing can induce involuntary chuckles; sort of like being tickled while being sat on by your bigger bully cousin. I laughed, I cried (there is a great end scene involving hula that belongs in The Descendants). And I was grateful, too.


I was grateful that Crowe didn’t turn Bumpy Kanahele into Taylor Wiley in Forgetting Sarah Marshall or Five-0. Which is an upgrade—usually “Hawaiians” are comic relief, and you can relax knowing Bumpy and his Kingdom of Hawai‘i village in the valley are treated with respect, and a degree of realism.


Like Bill Murray and Alec Baldwin, Bumpy can play himself really well. His scenes are among the best in the movie, just because he isn’t trying so hard to make up for a weak script. Bumpy’s life has gravitas because, in the end, he has a cause. Something to fight for, to believe in, that matters.


Which is all that Aloha lacks. Instead, it has scenes. We could make another 18 trailers out of the scenes in the 95 minutes left in the movie. Sadly, it still wouldn’t change our minds: Aloha is 20 trailers in search of a movie.


With that out of the way, we can talk about our anger issues.


There seems to have been a deliberate decision made to include Native Hawaiians but to excise almost all traces of anyone Asian. One reason for this: The story takes place almost exclusively on a military base and up in Bumpy’s Kingdom. Still. That one Guy Hagi appearance (in an aloha shirt from Hades) does not quite make up for it. There are also plenty of people of color in the military who don’t show up in the movie.


Along with the unbearable whiteness, as Herman Melville called Moby-Dick, the film has an absurd and completely phony third-act complication involving a rocket ship and covert nukes being sent up by private space contractors from a Hawaiian base. I think this is where the acid flashback to Dr. No and Austin Powers kicked in for Crowe.


There are several mentions of menehune and one scene with nightmarchers. These are the moments that you wish you could un-hear and un-see. You know that they’re special to Crowe, and that makes you feel queasier.


So there you have it. You’ll survive seeing Aloha on the airplane if you go in expecting a comedy, a bit of a hot mess, with laugh-out-loud moments, stunningly attractive people and quick little jabs to the heart—really, you won’t be disappointed. 


On the other hand, if you’re rooting for a movie that finally gets Hawai‘i, pour yourself an adult beverage and bite down on a towel. 


As for the rest of us, here’s how it might’ve been worse.


I know, what were they thinking. No schnitzel in a German movie?