Last Tuesday night in an LA movie theater, Cameron Crowe grabbed a microphone before a crowd of journalists and film critics. There were hollers and applause — a career like his warrants that — and he went on to explain that a couple of years ago he got together with some friends to shoot what he described as a love letter to the island of Hawaii. Sure, there had been some bad buzz, including some particularly damning leaked emails from Sony Pictures executives along the way, but "never did the movie cease to be anything more than a love letter."
He might as well have just said, Keep your expectations low on this one. A landslide of horrible reviews and a sixth-place, $10 million opening weekend later, Crowe’s new film Aloha is dead on arrival — and with good reason. It’s inarguably the worst film of his directorial career, the story of a military contractor (Bradley Cooper) heading up the launch of a satellite in Hawaii, where he ends up romantically ping-ponging between his now-married ex (Rachel McAdams) and a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian Air Force pilot named Allison Ng (played, rather inexplicably, by Emma Stone). It’s a bizarre film, narratively incoherent at times, that makes so many herky-jerky leaps in genre and tone that it feels like three different films got tossed into a Vitamix and turned into a foul movie smoothie.
It’s also the latest in a string of films over the past 15 years that have slowly been chipping away at Crowe’s status as the earnest, rock n’ roll cinematic voice of a generation. Given that his pedigree was earned with seminal films like Say Anything…, Almost Famous, and Jerry Maguire, it’s enough to make you wonder just what the hell’s happening.
Early versions included human sacrifice and volcanoes
Aloha first started struggling to life back in 2008, under the name Deep Tiki. Back then it was going to star Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon, but the project eventually got pushed, and Crowe ended up making the Matt Damon comedy We Bought A Zoo instead. That may have been a good thing, because at the time, the script for Deep Tiki had started to develop a reputation for some rather eccentric story elements — including a human sacrifice into a volcano. However, several years later Crowe ended up reworking the script, eventually resulting in Aloha.
While that might seem indicative of somebody that’s running thin on ideas, that kind of iterative, exploratory creative process isn’t anything new for Crowe. He’s always been very open about his process as a writer, churning through draft upon draft before finding the right way to tell a given story. Early versions of Almost Famous centered around a fake British rock band before he decided to mine his own family’s story and dreamt up Stillwater; Singles had been floating around for years before the death of Mother Love Bone’s Andy Wood inspired Crowe to center the film around the Seattle music scene. It might be messy, but it results in films — and scripts — that are utterly singular.
While considering Crowe’s recent films, I revisited the script for Jerry Maguire. I’d intended to read just through the opening, but that quick skim turned into a marathon read. Crowe’s best work is propulsive. It soars, with an unmistakeable voice and romanticism that he first touched upon in 1982 with Fast Times at Ridgemont High and refined into its arguable high point in 2000’s Almost Famous. It’s a mix that’s both smart and clever, with a self-assuredness that allows Crowe to break storytelling conventions while always letting the audience know they’re in safe hands.
Crowe’s best work soars with an unmistakeable voice and romanticism
As Almost Famous hit theaters, Crowe told Salon that he was ready to move beyond the themes of adolescence that had dominated his work thus far. "So there are things that have happened over the last five or six years that I really want to write about that are basically adult themes," he said at the time — and it’s been bumpy ever since. Vanilla Sky saw Crowe stretch as a director, pulling off a darker, more sinister tone and more stylized visuals than he’d ever attempted before. But the approach clashed with his signature practice of using classic rock tunes to highlight essential emotional beats, and many great moments were cribbed from Abre Los Ojos, the Spanish film that inspired Sky. The result was a movie that was narratively complex by design, but emotionally impregnable; the anti-Cameron Crowe movie.
Doubling down on his new theme of choice — men seeking redemption — Crowe turned out Elizabethtown in 2005 and then We Bought a Zoo in 2011. The former was an attempt at melding the framework of Jerry Maguire with the personal introspection of Almost Famous, and delivered on neither (inspiring the term "manic pixie dream girl" will likely be its longstanding cultural legacy). The latter was an inoffensive and workmanlike family film, but largely lacked the sparkle and joyfulness that was so infectious in Crowe’s earlier films.
The arc of a talented artist wrestling with new themes
Taken together, it’s the arc of a talented artist wrestling with new themes and storytelling conceits in a way he never has before — a creative struggle that finally collapsed upon itself with Aloha. In an email leaked as part of the Sony hacks, then-Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal stated that she would never start a movie again "when the script is ridiculous". Perhaps that kind of pushback from studio heads will aid Crowe in getting things back on track (or perhaps he’ll have the opportunity to direct one of the projects he’s already written on for years, like his much-delayed Marvin Gaye biopic). Maybe jumping to a different medium, like he’s doing with his Showtime pilot Roadies, will do the trick.
Whatever it takes, I’ll be rooting for Crowe. Because even in between Aloha’s most inexplicable moments, there are flashes of his brilliance; fleeting scenes filled with refreshing honesty. At one point in the film, Bradley Cooper and John Krasinski’s characters make nice with each other in a totally silent dance of looks, shrugs, and suburban alpha male pantomime, and the entire theater was laughing despite how poorly the rest of the movie had played. Cameron Crowe has a voice in film like no other, and I hope he continues to be bold, experiment, and find new ways to tell stories he cares about. I just hope they turn out a lot better than Aloha.