This is the only time in this review of "Aloha" that I will acknowledge the controversy involving leaked e-mails that uncovered behind-the-scenes tension, and it's only to dismiss the nonsense as completely irrelevant. The reason, it turns out, is right there in the movie itself, which is three things at once and pretty unforgettably so: a romantic comedy between two, irrepressibly charming oddballs, a love letter (despite another controversy from a different source) to Hawaiian culture for the souls visiting or on business there, and a tactful exploration of self-respect and esteem. Writer/director Cameron Crowe's film is startlingly empathetic about flawed people in a transitory period of their lives.
Brian Gilcrest and Allison Ng's idea of a Meet Cute is upon her assignment as his watchdog of sorts, and it certainly helps that they are played with no shortage of charm, charisma, and chemistry by Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone. Brian was once a space operations officer until an injury left him with a mangled right leg and foot (The injury to the latter is particularly grotesque), but now he's been assigned to convince the nationalist leader of Hawaii, Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele (appearing here as himself), to bless the ground where the launch of a rocket is soon to take place. The deal has already been set between Brian's former C.O. General Dixon (a slick and slimy Alec Baldwin) and billionaire/entrepreneur Carson Welch (Bill Murray in a fun role), but there seems to be something shady going on here.
The rocket subplot is merely background noise, though (as proven by the mostly indecipherable threat posed to the launch in the 11th hour and Brian's muddy solution to it), for a surprisingly thoughtful capturing of the essence of the Hawaiian islands, mostly due to the direct influence of Mitchell (Jaeden Lieberher), the young son of Brian's ex-girlfriend Tracy (Rachel McAdams) who is obsessed with a local myth involving something called "The Arrival," which gains in symbolic significance by the third act. Through a bitterly amusing coincidence, Tracy (whom Brian has not seen in 13 years) is now married to Brian's chronically, though inconsistently silent colleague Woody (an excellent John Krasinski in an unexpectedly complex role), and together they have a 12-year-old daughter named Grace (Danielle Rose Russell, and yes, her age was an invitation to do some math).
Enter Allison, a one-quarter-Hawaiian captain with the United States Air Force who is so irrepressibly oddball that she can't but break down Brian's guardedness and his clear lack of respect for himself. The pair enters a semi-forbidden song-and-dance routine of flirtation and occasionally more that never once dips into preciousness or quirk. The two actors here keep both feet planted firmly on Earth in a film that doesn't necessitate the kind of plot-heavy devices of similar efforts. That even goes for the third act, in which the stuff with the rocket heats up and is placed in a position of narrative importance but is also so entirely dependent on character motivation that it feels less like an active subplot and more an extension on Brian's development as a person who respects himself.
Meanwhile, in an age when they might merely be relegated to love-interest roles of the present and past variety, Allison and Tracy are given breathing room to create characters of complexity. Allison is, in the most endearing form of the word, a total weirdo, mixing proper, tough-minded soldier with a romantic whirlwind of a person who is intensely proud of her partially Hawaiian heritage. Stone, a screen beauty with her huge, expressive eyes and winning smile, unsurprisingly nails this performance. Tracy, meanwhile, has a pretty good reason for having called off marriage (apparently multiple times) to Brian, which she voices in a scene that skyrockets McAdams's performances to somewhere near the top of her oeuvre; Tracy loves Woody in spite of his inability to talk about his job (Woody doesn't talk anyway but through his body language, which, as Brian observes, still says a lot and receives some clever subtitles near the end) and is clearly happier now than she ever was with Brian.
Here, Crowe is working in the same milieu and arena of effectiveness as recent efforts from Sam Mendes (2009's "Away We Go") and Alexander Payne (2011's "The Descendants"), rebuilding and, where necessary, dismantling relationships. There is the odd moment of quirk here and there (Danny McBride has an amusing supporting role as a colonel nicknamed "Fingers" because of a nervous tic, and Stone and Murray share a silly dance to a Hall & Oates track), and the dialogue, while poetic, sometimes ventures off to "flowery," but it matters very little when, by the end of "Aloha," we have grown to care about people who feel like real people. The word "magical" might be a sappy one to use to describe what Crowe has accomplished here, but it's also entirely apt.
Bradley Cooper (Brian Gilcrest), Emma Stone (Allison Ng), Rachel McAdams (Tracy Woodside), Bill Murray (Carson Welch), John Krasinski (John "Woody" Woodside), Danny McBride (Colonel "Fingers" Lacy), Danielle Rose Russell (Grace), Jaeden Lieberher (Mitchell), Bill Camp (Bob Largent), Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele (Himself), Alec Baldwin (General Dixon).
Directed and written by Cameron Crowe.
Rated PG-13 (language including suggestive comments).
Released on May 29, 2015.