With success comes expectations, and for Cameron Crowe nothing short of high-quality heartfelt filmmaking will do. Perhaps that's why Crowe's most recent films, Elizabethtown (2005) and We Bought A Zoo (2011), aren't terrible, they're just not nearly as good as Say Anything (1989), Jerry Maguire (1996) and Almost Famous (2000).
Crowe's latest, Aloha, is different, though. It's legitimately boring and disappointing, and marks another sad step in the wrong direction for the writer/director.
He could not ask for more star power in this cast. Bradley Cooper takes the lead as Brian, an Air Force veteran turned private military contractor who returns to Hawaii to negotiate a "blessing" from the natives for a new Air Force base. Brian's employer is Carson (Bill Murray), who wants to dominate outer space with his satellites and rockets. Carson's relationship with the Air Force is supposed to be mutually beneficial: they get access to his equipment, he gets the legitimate support and space he needs to operate. Danny McBride and Alec Baldwin have fun in extended cameos as Air Force officers, but there's not enough of them.
The story is a bit muddled, and worse it's a slug. In this age of social media and superheroes, the privatization of the military is a total snore as the focal point of a movie. The love story between Brian and his Air Force liaison, the peppy Allison (Emma Stone), is a predictable waste of time. The only remotely interesting relationship is between Brian and his ex-girlfriend Tracy (Rachel McAdams), as there are still lingering feelings there in spite of her marriage to Woody (John Krasinski) and two kids. The way the Brian/Tracy situation evolves feels honest and true; this is the only part of the film that can be described that way.
Other problems abound: All the male characters are emotionally distant, which makes it hard to invest our own emotions in their stories. Crowe's script is not sharp, funny, clever, or compelling. It has no surprises and just a few jokes — it's hard to believe this is the same guy who wrote such memorable lines as "you had me at hello" and "show me the money!" or Llyod Dobler's signature "I don't want to sell anything" speech.
Worse, the movie lacks the nostalgia and sweetness that always made Crowe's films special. We related to John Cusack's Dobler is Say Anything because he was hopelessly in love with Diane Court (Ione Sky) and went so far as to blast Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" on his boom box held high above his head in an effort to claim her affection. Almost Famous was a love letter to Crowe's own early days as a music writer, and we completely understood innocent William's (Patrick Fugit) crush on "band-aid" Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).
The point is, through classic rock music and stories of youth and love, Crowe effectively tugged at our hearts and gave us unforgettable moments. He did not,in those days, worry about nuclear weapons in outer space or about offending locals who consider their land a sovereign state. It used to be all about emotion for Crowe, but now it's about politics and money and bureaucracy. Heck, there's not even a memorable song on the soundtrack. How could Crowe stray so far from what made him great?
Of course, Crowe is not the first director to go through a lull, and certainly will not be the last. Is he our next M. Night Shyamalan, who hasn't made a good movie in years? Or will he be Woody Allen, who has ups and downs with his films? Time will tell. Hopefully Crowe figures it out soon, and remembers the music and heart and warmth that made him great in the first place.