Somewhere on the incoherent pu pu platter that is Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha,” a nifty romantic comedy congeals and shrivels, inexplicably untouched.
Crowe — who gave the world such deathless lines as “You had me at ‘Hello,’ ” the man who put the boom box in Lloyd Dobler’s defiantly upstretched arms — spends so much time running away from his roots in “Aloha” that he misses the point of his own movie. Only a filmmaker out to put a permanent stake in the rom-com would take a couple of fizzily attractive movie stars and plop them into a story that hinges, not on a long-awaited first kiss or third-act Hail Mary, but on sundry bits of arcana involving Hawaiian mythology, military privatization, space weaponry and — be still, our beating hearts — sound transducing.
“Aloha” is such an inchoate mess, such a forced, insular, self-pleasing misfire, that plotting it out can be a challenge. Bradley Cooper plays Brian Gilcrest, an Air Force veteran and military contractor who, as he laboriously explains during a saggy opening voice-over, developed an obsession with space as a young boy. After a promising career at Hickam Air Force Base, he went over to the “gray side,” signing on with a billionaire (Bill Murray) who wants to get into the private space-flight racket. As “Aloha” opens, Gilcrest is returning to Honolulu to nudge the enterprise along by greasing some local palms, especially those of a local king played by real-life native leader Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele.
Gilcrest’s mission is complicated by two women: the overeager Air Force captain assigned to escort him, and an old girlfriend who is living on the base with her pilot husband and two kids. As the wide-eyed, puppyish escort Allison Ng, Emma Stone takes perky officiousness into the realm of derangement; it’s up to each filmgoer to decide for him- or herself whether to believe for one minute that she’s one quarter native Hawaiian. (The film has come in for criticism for “whitewashing” native Hawaiian culture, notwithstanding Kanahele’s presence and near-constant digressions into the islands’ traditional animist beliefs.)
As Gilcrest’s erstwhile squeeze, Rachel McAdams spends most of “Aloha” at sea — at least metaphorically — with the unreadable Gilcrest and her unintelligible husband. An early scene where they make goo-goo eyes at one another while a military casket emerges from the belly of a plane he’s just flown in on doesn’t bode well for the taste or tonal dissonance of what’s to come.
Taste-wise, Crowe is at constant pains to prove his bona fides. As with most of his films, he jams as many musical cues as he can into “Aloha,” from the Who and Hall & Oates to a cameo from slack key guitarist Ledward Kaapana, in an attempt to sell scenes and emotions he otherwise can’t justify or resolve. While Gilcrest and Ng bounce around scenic locales and featureless motel rooms, they launch into weird, non sequitur-laden jags about space, sex, Gilcrest’s failure to commit and whatever else comes into their dippy, quippy, always camera-ready little heads.
Edited by Crowe’s longtime cutter Joe Hutshing, “Aloha” has a choppy, scattershot feel that keeps the audience uncomfortably disoriented, as a series of “Where did that come from?” moments accumulate into a finale as unaffecting as it is unearned. (A penultimate passage, when Gilcrest exchanges supposedly cathartic glances with a supporting character, is particularly puzzling, given that her inner life has received zero attention for the preceding hour and a half.) The emotional hurdles are never higher than mere bumps, which Crowe quickly tries to smooth over with a patch of quirky dialogue, an adorable musical interlude or putting someone in a silly hat. In fact, the most improbably satisfying moments of “Aloha” belong to a blowhard general played by Alec Baldwin, whose most florid outburst against Gilcrest’s entitled self-satisfaction could easily be directed at the very movie he’s in.
To quote Amy Pascal, the former Sony co-president whose hacked e-mails last winter revealed her lack of faith in “Aloha”: “It never, not even once, ever works.” As with many of the leaked exchanges with her colleagues, Pascal’s words formed a candid tutorial in Hollywood sausage-making and, in a sobering sense, the principles that guide our common culture and chief export commodity. As Pascal reminded her colleagues, the studio had “a lot of dough” tied up in “Aloha,” which makes its artistic failure that much more depressing. Sony makes its money on “Spider-Man” sequels, “Smurfs” and “Paul Blart,” but it’s also one of the few big studios left that tries to make the kind of mid-range movie that Hollywood supposedly doesn’t produce anymore — romantic comedies, adult dramas, political thrillers by the likes of David O. Russell, David Fincher, Paul Greengrass and, yes, Cameron Crowe. They might have put their money on the wrong horse this time, but we should hope and pray that Sony at least stays in the race.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some profanity and suggestive comments. 105 minutes.