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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Aloha  (2015)
3½ Stars
Directed by Cameron Crowe.
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Alec Baldwin, Danny McBride, Jaeden Lieberher, Danielle Rose Russell, Ivana Milicevic, Bill Camp, Michael Chernus, Edi Gathegi, Elizabeth Marvel.
2015 – 105 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for some language including suggestive comments).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, May 28, 2015.
Throughout his career, writer-director Cameron Crowe has proven particularly adept at writing people whom the viewer actively wants to follow. Even when there are plot devices at work, the characters and their relationships have a reality and attentiveness to them, seemingly moving beyond the confines of the screenplay they are in. In pretty much all of his films—among them, 1989's "Say Anything," 1992's "Singles," 1996's "Jerry Maguire," 2000's "Almost Famous," 2001's "Vanilla Sky," 2005's "Elizabethtown," and 2011's "We Bought a Zoo"—Crowe gravitates toward protagonists who are at a defining, potentially make-or-break crossroads, and then gives them the space to breathe as they gradually learn about and, by extension, better themselves. With all of this in mind, "Aloha" feels like vintage Crowe, a perceptive slice-of-life at once free-floating and very specifically structured. Certain narrative details involving military protocol and the launch of a satellite into space may be less than airtight, but the alluring spirit of its Hawaii setting and the interpersonal entanglements of its deliciously appealing cast ring true.

A former celebrated Air Force space program officer until he was wounded in Afghanistan, Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) returns to his old Honolulu stomping ground as a contractor for billionaire tycoon Carson Welch (Bill Murray), billed as "the new king of space exploration." Brian has been tasked with assisting in the planned launch of a satellite into the stars, and gung-ho fighter pilot Allison Ng (Emma Stone) is beyond eager to assist as his watchdog during his visit. As Brian slowly lets down his guard with Allison, his old life with ex-girlfriend Tracy Woodside (Rachel McAdams)—now married to quiet military man John (John Krasinski) and with two kids, 12-year-old Grace (Danielle Rose Russell) and 10-year-old Mitchell (Jaeden Lieberher)—comes rushing back. They ended things on an unfinished note over a decade ago, and seeing each other again brings up unresolved feelings and the question of whether or not they made the right decision.

"Aloha" opens with archival footage of the Big Island's people, culture and history, an inviting welcome to a place that Brian is seeing with fresh eyes after being gone for years. Writer-director Cameron Crowe has a way with crafting a comfortable, immersive landscape no matter if his film is set in Seattle, Kentucky, Manhattan, or on a dizzying cross-country road trip with a rock band, and his use of Hawaii as both backdrop and a central figure in the story is no exception. Likewise, his writing of characters who may be part of a love story but are so much more than just pawns to convention is one of his most dependable talents; Brian, Allison, Tracy and everyone else circling their orbit have individual points of view and the passion to stand up for what they believe. They are also, for that matter, intelligent and interesting, charismatic participants in a grown-up entertainment that is a joy to watch take shape. If the story could best be described as a romantic semi-triangle between a man struggling personally and professionally with doing the right thing, a former flame who chose to walk away and start a new life with someone whom she is not sure she is still happy with, and a spirited, career-minded straight-shooter who coaxes him out of his shell, this doesn't even scratch the surface of the script's other absorbing layers that aid in complicating the characters' situations and allowing them to grow.

The actors appear to be having a great time, always present and locked into their roles (it doesn't hurt that they have so much chemistry together, either). Early on, Bradley Cooper (2014's "American Sniper") intentionally plays things guarded as Brian Gilcrest, a man whose career path hasn't gone as expected and whose once-idealistic fascination with the mysteries of space has crumbled. As much as he presents himself as a cynic and an introvert, Allison rightly sees through this facade. Indeed, Brian cares about what people think of him—a scene where he overhears Allison talking about him on the phone through the thin walls of their adjoining hotel rooms leads to an amusing payoff—and is a romantic at heart. The incisive, increasingly bubbly interplay between these two is terrific, and Emma Stone (2014's "Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"), as the "one-quarter Hawaiian" Allison, is an irresistible force, funny and charmingly quirky and ultimately touching when she discovers something about Brian's work that forces her to once again reassess the way she sees him.

As Tracy, Rachel McAdams (2013's "About Time") has to walk a precarious tightrope, expressing the feelings she still harbors for Brian without making her come off as callous or unsympathetic toward the family she already has. Because these are decidedly good-hearted people, though, making mistakes but trying to do their best, Crowe handles Tracy's "what-if?" wonderings with a delicate and respectful touch that sees both sides. McAdams is a vibrant presence throughout, making it all the more easy to understand what Brian once saw in Tracy. As Tracy's husband, John, flying off at a moment's notice to confidential locations for the purposes of his job, John Krasinski (2012's "Promised Land") embodies the steadfast goodness of a man who may not often verbally express his emotions but has a lot going on behind his eyes and his pen. As Allison's superior, General Dixon, Alec Baldwin (2014's "Still Alice") is underused, but welcome each time he shows up. That he goes out of his way at a party to request the deejay play Tears for Fears' soaring "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" is all one really needs to know about him, anyway. Likewise, Bill Murray (2014's "The Monuments Men"), as wealthy space tech entrepreneur Carson Welch, gets his own memorable music-centric moment, a transfixing dance with Emma Stone to Hall & Oates' "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)." Finally, Jaeden Lieberher (2014's "St. Vincent") and Danielle Rose Russell (2014's "A Walk Among the Tombstones") are winning as Tracy's and John's thoughtful kids, Mitchell and Grace.

"Aloha" is destined to have its naysayers, those who claim it is perhaps a little too square and earnest for its own good. One could also say certain story points in regard to Brian's assignment in Hawaii and a key climactic action he takes lack clarity. Let them. "Aloha" is an utter dreamy delight, one that unapologetically leads with its heart and has no time for snark. When Brian, who has stared death in the face, confesses to Allison, "Tonight is the first night I'm truly happy I lived," it is an unabashedly sweet moment. Surrounded by the rich history and mystical folklore of Oahu, Brian and Allison also witness an unusual happening when they come upon a strange procession crossing a wooded nighttime road. Have they just witnessed ghostly apparitions of the mythological "Night Marcher" tribesmen, the Hukai'po, or have they merely stumbled by chance on a band of reenactors? Crowe leaves it open for debate while giving these two potential soulmates a uniquely special experience that they choose to keep between themselves. Exquisitely shot by cinematographer Eric Gautier (2009's "Taking Woodstock"), lovingly scored by Jónsi & Alex, and complemented by another one of Crowe's indelible signature soundtracks, "Aloha" is as easy, comforting and frequently transcendent as a sincere declaration of love. Anchored by the knockout pairing of Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone, the film—and its characters, and the world they inhabit—is difficult to say good-bye to because it's just so effortlessly endearing. Aloha, indeed.
© 2015 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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