Aloha is a bad movie, but it's the sort of bad movie only Cameron Crowe could have made. The marketing made it look like a generic studio rom-com, but Crowe's fingerprints are all over the finished product. Alas, as with most of his recent work, the assorted pieces don't come together the way they ought to. Aloha was one of the most persistently-mocked movies of the summer, but there are some terrific moments within its 105-minute running time: hilarious bits of comic innovation, genuinely affecting scenes of personal angst and infinitely likable stretches of relaxed hangout comedy. The problem is that these cool moments are trapped within a movie that seems to have no idea of what it wants to be or what it's trying to say. It's as if Crowe is trying (and failing) to find a framework for the self-contained moments he's actually interested in.

Most of Crowe's movies are essentially stories about men finding themselves (sometimes youngsters like Lloyd Dobler and William Miller, sometimes full-grown dudes like Jerry Maguire and whatever Orlando Bloom's character was named in Elizabethtown), and this one is no different. Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook) plays Brian Gilcrest, who used to be a military contractor but now works for billionaire entrepreneur Carson Welch (Bill Murray, Broken Flowers). Brian was sent to Hawaii on Carson's behalf to organize a traditional blessing for the opening of a new pedestrian gate, but soon discovers that Carson has bigger things in mind: Carson wants to develop a new space center in Hawaii, and wants Brian to oversee the launch of a privately-funded satellite. However, when Brian learns that Carson may be up to something shady, he may be forced to choose between doing his job and doing the right thing.

Meanwhile, Brian has a pair of quasi-romantic entanglements to deal with. It just so happens that his ex-girlfriend Tracy (Rachel McAdams, Red Eye) now lives in Hawaii, and now has a family of her own. Brian's arrival causes tension between Tracy and her husband Woody (John Krasinski, The Office), and Brian begins to wonder if Rachel's oldest daughter (Danielle Rose Russell) might actually be his. Brian also begins to form a relationship with Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone, Zombieland), an enthusiastic young fighter pilot who idealism reminds Brian of his own past.

Aloha has a surprisingly complicated story, but it's immediately clear that Crowe has almost no interest in addressing corrupt business practices or shady public-private partnerships or humanity's tendency to trample on tradition for the sake of technical advancement or any of that stuff. Those big themes are discussed with considerable frequency (huge chunks of the dialogue are devoted to explaining ancient rituals, old Hawaiian myths, the military's relationship with Carson's company and the technical details of a satellite launch), but they feel like an incredibly half-hearted attempt at making the movie look like it's about something more than a bunch of A-list actors hanging out with each other and having fun.

Here's the thing, though: Aloha is at its absolute best when it's a goofy hangout movie, because those are the moments that remind you of why you like these people (Crowe included) and make you forget about the film's odd, overstuffed-and-half-baked plot (which begins with an overload of clumsy exposition and ends with one of the most preposterously contrived explosions I've ever seen). There's a scene in which Stone and Murray do a bit of drunken dancing at a party, and it's a complete delight that has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the movie. There's a great little scene where Alec Baldwin has a temper tantrum of the first order, and another fun bit where a silent moment of bonding between two men is accompanied by explanatory subtitles. That sort of stuff should have been the main course, but I guess it's difficult to greenlight a movie about nothing.

Crowe fares a little better when he's focusing on the rom-com side of things – at least you can tell his heart is in it – but this is a far cry from the charming sincerity of ...Say Anything or even Jerry Maguire. Crowe seems uncomfortable with anything resembling serious conflict, quickly finding ways to reassure us that all tensions will be short-lived and that everything is going to work out just fine for everyone (a notion enhanced by the gentle Hawaiian music Crowe employs with exasperating frequency). There's a lot of talk about the big risks these characters are taking both romantically and professionally, but Crowe never gives us good reason to believe that there will ever be any substantial consequences. The final twenty minutes or so offer one scene after another of eyeroll-inducing wish fulfillment. That happens in a lot of Crowe's movies, but the director seems to be putting increasingly little effort into earning those big moments.

The acting is a mixed bag here, though much of it can be blamed on the writing. Cooper plays movie star charm well enough, but never really sells us on his character's weighty emotional baggage or the notion that he's essentially an amoral mercenary. Stone makes a strong first impression as the brash young military gal, but there's a surprising inconsistency to her performance – the “ten-hut!” precision seems to come and go from scene to scene, and not just because she's in and out of uniform at various points. McAdams does fine, low-key work, but Krasinski seems badly miscast as her strong, silent husband – he's playing Gary Cooper, basically, which doesn't suit his screen presence. Baldwin, Murray and Danny McBride (Eastbound & Down) each generate a few chuckles, but they're basically coasting.

There's nothing I'd like more than to see Mr. Crowe make a good movie again. He's a soulful filmmaker who puts his heart into everything he does, but it's been a solid fifteen years since he made a narrative feature that wasn't a complete mess. Aloha is a frustrating continuation of the director's downward spiral, a good-natured but bewilderingly directionless movie. At one point, Cooper suggests that there's nothing better in life than having fun. “A sense of purpose, maybe?” Stone replies. No kidding.


Rating: ½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Year: 2015