‘Aloha’: A sweet Hawaiian blend of romance, social commentary

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As we learned from leaked e-mails last year, Sony Pictures Entertainment execs were not thrilled about Cameron Crowe’s latest film, eventually titled “Aloha” and now arriving in theaters.

Amy Pascal, then co-chair of SPE, wrote, “The satellite makes no sense,” “The gate makes no sense” and as for the movie itself: “It never, not even once, ever works.”*

Pascal was mostly right about the satellite and the gate, and there ARE times when “Aloha” doesn’t work — and yet I’m recommending it for its sometimes loony sense of wonder, its trippy spirituality, itsbrilliant cast and because I seem to be a sap for even the Cameron Crowe movies almost nobody else likes.

Looking suitably the worse for wear for his character, Bradley Cooper hits a lot of strong notes as Brian Gilcrest, who grew up dreaming of soaring to the heavens for NASA but wound up as a celebrated but increasingly mercenary defense contractor who was left for dead after one particularly disastrous assignment.

Now saddled with a perpetual limp, both literally and spiritually, Brian arrives in Hawaii — scene of some of his greatest triumphs — to facilitate the launching of a satellite funded by the eccentric, gung-ho American billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray, perfectly weird and great).

Now let’s welcome the cast of colorful co-leads and supporting players!

• Danny McBride is Col. “Fingers” Lacy, so nicknamed because he has a condition where his hands flap about like a bird. (And yet he’s the choice to be the DJ at a Christmas party.)

• John Krasinski is John “Woody” Woodside, a stoic, unsmiling pilot who rarely says more than two words, even to his wife Tracy (Rachel McAdams) and their two children. Woody’s particularly grumpy because he had to give Brian a lift to Hawaii, and wouldn’t you know it, Tracy and Brian had a big thing back in the day.

• Alec Baldwin is the intimidating Gen. Dixon, who has four stars AND a chip on his shoulder, especially when it comes to Brian.

• Emma Stone is the plucky Allison Ng, a fighter pilot who romanticizes the stars and the sky, and constantly reminds everyone she’s a quarter-Hawaiian. (The Air Force has very specific size requirements for pilots, but let’s just go with Emma Stone, Fighter Pilot.)

Allison has been assigned to babysit Brian as Brian negotiates with native leaders who wear T-shirts that say “Hawaiian by Birth” on the front and “American by Force” on the back. If Brian can get their blessing for a gate ceremony, it will be a PR coup and will pave the way for the respectful relocation of a burial site and the construction of whatever it is the civilian billionaire and the American military are planning. (As I said, I wouldn’t disagree with Pascal about the murky business involving the gate and the satellite. At times it’s nearly impossible to follow.)

Brian respects the Hawaiian culture, and Allison is a flat-out spiritual devotee. There’s lots of talk of various Hawaiian myths. We get a strange and beautiful occurrence late one night that may or may not have been an apparition. And there are some lovely musical interludes. (There have been some pre-release voices of concern about the film’s treatment of Hawaiian culture — but to my outsider’s view, it seemed quite respectful.)

Meanwhile, the tightly wound but ever-chipper Allison and the cynical Brian bicker for all of about 24 hours before the sparks start to fly and the bickering turns to bantering and then … well. At times Allison seems awfully naïve for an Air Force pilot tagged for greatness by the brass, but Stone infuses her with limitless charm. If Sally from “When Harry Met Sally…” had become a fighter pilot, this is what she would have been like.

Complicating matters: Tracy and Woody are on the verge of splitting up, and Tracy seems all too eager to pour her heart out to Brian. McAdams and Cooper are great together, but Krasinski is stuck playing a caricature whose idea of communication is to grip your shoulder tightly and give you meaningful glances. (Crowe takes a big chance in one scene where Woody finally “opens up.” It lands with a cringe-inducing thud.)

Crowe tinkered with “Aloha” for years. (At one point Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon were to headline.) At times it does have the feel of a movie that’s less than the sum of its parts, as it veers from a study of the complicated political history and rich cultural traditions of Hawaii to a commentary on filthy rich civilians using the military for their own gain to a romantic quadrangle, and what’s with the colonel and his flying fingers anyway?

Still. Cooper is terrific in two love stories, even though we’re not exactly rooting for him in either case. Brian was an idiot for blowing it with Tracy, and given his track record, part of us wants him to leave Allison alone. Rachel McAdams does a fine job in navigating a character who’s not always the most sympathetic. Emma Stone continues to corner the market on plucky. As always, Crowe makes interesting and inspired (if sometimes overly corny) musical choices. “Aloha” is a great-looking movie with just enough bright spots to get us past the cloudy moments.

*One other thing about those e-mails between Sony executives: They were really looking forward to the remake of “Annie” and the sequel to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” Just sayin’.

[s3r star=3/4]

Columbia Picturespresents a film written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Running time: 105minutes. Rated PG-13 (for language including suggestive comments). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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