Thursday, June 30, 2016

Value Is A Relative Thing

30 years since summer 1986. Not exactly the most important year ever but that amount of time still allows for contemplation. It’s also a summer where a surprising number of films, even some of the hits, have fallen away from pop culture prominence. Yes, there was ALIENS and David Cronenberg’s remake of THE FLY so that’s at least two good ones. Of course, we also had POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE and Tobe Hooper’s remake of INVADERS FROM MARS, two rare 80s genre films which don’t seem to have any sizable cult these days. No one seems to remember RAW DEAL, the one Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle of the year. THE KARATE KID PART II actually made more money than the original did two years earlier yet it feels totally forgotten now, at least by me. It’s actually a few of the flops that have stuck around in popularity longer than expected, particularly Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH and John Carpenter’s all-holy BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA which wasn’t just a flop but a flat-out disaster, opening in 12th place at the box office on opening weekend. Some of the big hits of that summer now seem emblematic of the 80s rot that was really setting in by this time, away from what we think of as the comparatively simpler enjoyments of RAIDERS, E.T. and GREMLINS from earlier in the decade. TOP GUN. COBRA. FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF. Even the enjoyable RUTHLESS PEOPLE is deliberately about that ugliness.
And then there was LEGAL EAGLES, a film which has always felt like it was designed in a Hollywood lab for the sole purpose of being a big blockbusting star vehicle hit. A package put together by CAA with the right names attached in front of and behind the camera but not anyone who had any particular passion for making this film. Ivan Reitman was the director, still hot off GHOSTBUSTERS and no doubt looking to extend his reign as the new big comedy guy. For star Robert Redford this was immediately after he made OUT OF AFRICA, also made at Universal, and was possibly the lightest material he had appeared in since maybe the 60s. Debra Winger was in the middle of her hot streak as the big female lead around while Daryl Hannah had just broken through two years earlier with SPLASH. Screenwriters Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr. (Reitman himself shares story credit with them) also had their names on TOP GUN that summer and were no doubt the hot writers of the moment. LEGAL EAGLES is slick, it always has been, but it’s really not more than that, kinda sorta an attempt to makes an old-fashioned Tracy-Hepburn comedy-mystery only in the 80s vein going for lots of laughs and action with a plot that never really kicks into gear. It’s not terrible but it’s not really all that good either. Since it wasn’t the smash hit it was meant to be is it serving any purpose for anyone at all anymore? The film’s MacGuffin is a painting, in case anyone out there has forgotten this crucial detail, one that we are deliberately never shown presumably because it’s so brilliant that it must be kept in our imagination. At least, I’m assuming that’s why but never showing it winds up serving as a metaphor for the entire project.
Tom Logan (Robert Redford) is a hotshot New York prosecuting attorney who may soon get a chance to be named the new District Attorney when defense lawyer Laura Kelly (Debra Winger) ropes him into a case involving performance artist Chelsea Deardon (Darryl Hannah) who is accused of stealing a painting by her late father which she now claims now belongs to her. Upon investigating wealthy art dealer Victor Taft (Terence Stamp,) Laura believes that many paintings by Chelsea’s father, believed destroyed in a fire 18 years ago, still exist and are possibly being hidden by Taft. After Chelsea, claiming she’s convinced that someone is following her, shows up at Tom’s apartment late one night he of course sleeps with her. But when the police burst in the next morning to arrest her for murder, catching the two of them in bed together, he is immediately fired from the D.A.’s office and reluctantly joins forces with Laura to defend Chelsea as she goes to trial.
Looking at it now, LEGAL EAGLES feels a little too genetically engineered to ever have a personality of its own. It’s the sort of 80s film that tosses the name ‘Ovitz’ into a random line of dialogue, presumably trying to make a certain agent happy, mildly pleasant but never particularly likable, moderately diverting but never all that involving. It’s clearly interested in star power more than anything else—close to the half-hour mark instead of kicking the plot into gear things seem to stop for a protracted sequence intercutting the two leads who can’t sleep late at night as SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN plays on TV, presumably spelling out how right they are for each other. But it says something that one of the movies big attempts at a charming setpiece to set up the chemistry of the two leads occurs without them even in the same place and it’s still more interested in pulling off the romance than the plot which never becomes that big a deal. One imagines a thriller centering around missing paintings to be a lighthearted caper that could star Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in an earlier decade (odd piece of trivia—Grant himself is thanked in the end crawl for the use of a piece he owned so this is maybe the final film to feature the name ‘Cary Grant’ somewhere in the credits) except it’s made by people who seem to want to focus on the seriousness of the plot over the comedy only there’s never much of a plot to focus on.
For one thing, writing out the summary makes it seem extremely farfetched that Redford’s character joins up to defend Daryl Hannah on a murder charge after being found in bed with her when she’s arrested (would he need to be called to the stand?), so it doesn’t exactly stand up to close scrutiny. It’s all supposed to be charming and breezy which I guess means nitpicking that plot stuff doesn’t matter but it’s almost trying too hard—one of Redford’s big character traits is tap dancing late at night when he can’t sleep and I wonder how his downstairs neighbor feels about that. As much as the film wants to give us a Robert Redford having fun onscreen for the first time in years, playing a guy who burns the toast making breakfast and locks his keys in his car, too often the material seems like it’s beneath him and some of the other actors, a thriller storyline for adults that’s been dumbed down for kids to go see during the summer. When the murder mystery angle comes into play and the trial begins (the trial just begins, poof, with no indication of how much time has gone by) the movie never quite becomes about that either. It’s a little like at the halfway mark the film has suddenly decided to become a courtroom movie but there isn’t enough time left so it just moves on to the climax.
It’s at least professionally done and well shot by Laszlo Kovacs with that nice, crisp 80s Panavision look as well as extensive New York location work which actually makes it feel more set in the New York of GHOSTBUSTERS than GHOSTBUSTERS II does. A matte painting of Sutton Place late in the film in particular feels right out of the earlier film and throughout there are certainly enough evocative views of the city that they found the right places to shoot it. Locations like the late night shot of the Soho street outside of Chelsea’s apartment late at night or the view of the World Trade Center across the river from the Brooklyn art warehouse at least give the movie the an oddly cinematic feel for those brief moments but don’t do much for it as a comedy so those touches never have any lasting effect. Also extremely odd—even odder, looking at it all these years later—is Daryl Hannah’s performance artist presenting her new piece for Redford in a sequence which doesn’t have much to do with anything aside from extending the recurring theme of fire through the film. Then again, I’m not sure if this qualifies as extending a theme or just ‘the film has several scenes revolving around fire’. It’s not really a satirical look at what a mid-80s performance art piece might have been, it’s at least an unusual few minutes of film but still doesn’t have much to do with anything. Another film might have come up with a way to turn it into a clue for Redford’s character to figure out later on but here it plays as if Hannah had ideas for her thinly written character to make her something more than just a sex object and Reitman let her get carried away with it, even if the whole thing might have been more at home in AFTER HOURS. Maybe it’s meant to be a byproduct of PTSD from the character witnessing her father’s death as a child that is, if there was that much thought put into the idea.
It makes sense that Reitman would have wanted to prove himself away from the star power of Bill Murray (an early version of this was to possibly team Murray and Dustin Hoffman) but with all these disparate elements the film needed a solid idea behind it, a script as good as the one Reitman would had for DAVE a few years later, for that to happen. Looking back at Reitman’s career, some of the solid ideas are when his films have come out the best—looking back at his TWINS from 1988 it may never have been much more than what was advertised on the poster but it was definitely a solid commercial concept. LEGAL EAGLES plays like it’s as if when he tried to jigger an idea to his commercial sensibilities to fashion a movie meant to be such a hit it turned into a star vehicle which feels a little like actors assembled together waiting for the movie to happen so it’s all just a little too bland, the blanks haven’t been filled in to the bare bones of the basic idea.
At times there are hints that the film wants to be funnier than it knows it is and inserting a line that describes Winger’s character as having “once put a dog on the witness stand” implies more broad comedy than ever actually happens. In his autobiography “My Life As A Mankiewicz” the late screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz talks about doing uncredited work on the script, including mentioning how neither Redford or Winger wanted to be the ‘funny’ one of the pair in this alleged comedy—at times the task of getting laughs seems to be up to some of the bit actors playing other lawyers, like Christine Baranski as Logan’s associate at the D.A.’s office, as if they’re only passing through heading to appear in a broader movie when they leave the scene. As it is, some of the best bits are the most deadpan, a reminder that these actors deserve a more sophisticated approach to this material, like Winger’s “Happy Birthday, Your Honor” when she interrupts a court proceeding or Daryl Hannah describing the extent of a wealthy art patron’s interest as “She’s bored. She likes to wear earrings.” Even Redford’s big scene offering opening remarks at Chelsea’s trial where he asks who else believes Chelsea is guilty is nice (Liz Sheridan from SEINFELD is one of the jurors) is clearly meant to be a showpiece for him, as if part of the point of the scene is meant to remind us that he’s a movie star and it’s a nice moment but still pulls back before any real courtroom craziness so the speech never kicks into gear all that much. The film stays light when it should be more of a thriller. The jokes are flat when it needs more wit. The story beats are slick and 80s but never really mean very much. The patter never develops into real chemistry. Portions of the plot if described might sound like they could be out of an old screwball comedy but almost nothing about the film itself plays out in that fashion. It never becomes more than genial as a result almost as if the film was designed to be watched on a plane where only half-paying attention to it wouldn’t hurt it too much.
There’s also no real chemistry between the two leads that there’s not much to say about it so when Tom Logan tries to explain the concept of sexual politics to his daughter played by Jennie Dundas (Redford is given an ex-wife and preteen daughter for no particular reason) it plays as a little random but also a meta comment on how there’s nothing really going on in the film otherwise. The climax set in the art gallery ablaze (again with the fire) is a reminder that at least the film is expensive and you’d think there would be the opportunity to use the word Hitchcockian to describe some of this, but not so much with Reitman’s direction which gives off smooth professionalism but not much else here without Bill Murray to provide that extra juice. The bits of presumably deleted footage under the end credits hint at more plot but aren’t all that interesting (they look mostly like a main titles sequence for a LEGAL EAGLES TV show) and I don’t know if more plot, let alone more ineffective star interplay, would really help. The problem with LEGAL EAGLES isn’t that it’s too many things, it’s that it’s not enough of any of them. And, in the end, it’s a little empty. Which is not to say that a flashy star vehicle designed to entertain has to be rife with subtext and meaning but a small touch of resonance in the vein of the Grant/Hepburn/Tracy/Hepburn films of another era occasionally achieved would be nice.
Of course, star power only gets you so far. Robert Redford and Debra Winger at least have that but for a Tracy-Hepburn attempt it feels like it’s more interesting when the two actors are playing a scene with just about anyone else in the film. As if to compensate for the lack of chemistry both actors seem to default to being pleasant with each other just to get through it. I’d imagine that Daryl Hannah would be the Jean Hagan to this Tracy-Hepburn duo but aside from smoldering she never gets to do very much and feels a little like a waste. “Vintage Chelsea”, exclaims Winger near the end commenting on her effect on men which, again, feel like it implies more than we ever actually got to see. Brian Dennehy has a key supporting role looking like he walked off the set of F/X, got a trim around the sides and drove over to the set of this film. Terence Stamp doesn’t get much to do other than acting officious as Victor Taft but his dry reading of “Most of my clients prefer to see the front” to Redford’s request to see the back of a painting is a reminder of how dryly funny he can be, which he doesn’t get much of a chance to do here. Steven Hill, still a few years before LAW & ORDER premiered, is the Manhattan DA and after watching countless episodes of that show he seems overqualified for the way the part is written here. David Clennon of BEING THERE and THE THING is another stereotypical jerk in the D.A.’s office and Roscoe Lee Browne as the presiding judge offers some of the best comic timing in the film, making me wish it really were more of a courtroom movie. When he makes his entrance there’s such confidence in how he takes over the scene that I relax a little, happy to see him until I realize the character isn’t actually going to be around for very long. Elmer Bernstein composes the last of his four scores for Reitman and it plays like the composer knew all too well how much the film was depending on whatever excitement he could manage to bring to it. His music at least gets to make more of an impression here than in GHOSTBUSTERS where his work got buried by the pop songs--as anyone who was watching MTV at the time will remember, even if they don’t want to, Rod Stewart’s “Love Touch” was the one single for this movie and it plays over the end credits.
In the end, before LEGAL EAGLES was sent off to the purgatory of VHS it made just under $50 million, neither a huge hit or huge flop, certainly more impressive than it is now but the film also cost a lot and no one was ever that crazy about it. One odd postscript is how syndicated TV airings apparently featured an alternate ending which slightly altered whether or not Chelsea was guilty. Without being able to look at that one (for once, something doesn’t seem to be on Youtube) it seems like the one they went with for release at least wrapped things up a little quicker. LEGAL EAGLES isn’t all that terrible but it isn’t all that good either. For as much as it was meant to be a big deal, it’s just kind of a shrug either way, an expensive shrug with movie stars. Looking up that summer, other Universal releases included PSYCHO III and HOWARD THE DUCK so I guess it wasn’t one of their better seasons but chalk that up to karma from not wanting to release BRAZIL the previous year, I suppose. But hey, it was the 80s. At least that decade is over with even though for me when I spot extras in front of the art gallery during the big climax or the shot of Debra Winger driving the wrong way into traffic it gives me a hit of nostalgia as I close my eyes and imagine a film being shot in NY back then. As for LEGAL EAGLES itself, it’s really only memorable in the sense that you remember movies you saw during the summer when you were 15. Which is better than not remembering it at all, I suppose.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Pull Of The Unknowable

Depression. Cynicism. Anger. Pain. And then there are the bad days. That’s the world right now and that’s the way it is. Much as I may feel that way I know it’s an ugly, evil thing, resulting in a year like 2016. It’ll end eventually, I hope. Of course, cynicism can be necessary and integral to the world view of a film whether we’re talking about Wilder or the Coen Brothers or whoever. This brings up issues of what a movie should be or what we may want it to be. I saw Cameron Crowe’s ALOHA on opening weekend way, way back in May 2015 after months of bad buzz coming from a delayed release date as well as Amy Pascal emails that were leaked in the wake of the Sony hack. The film encountered further criticism after opening, much of which having to do with female lead Emma Stone playing the one-quarter Hawaiian “Allison Ng” which Crowe himself apologized for mere days later. These complaints had validity for reasons having to do with the film and otherwise, speaking to the greater issue of diversity in casting these days whether speaking of race, age or other factors. Of course, if Emma Stone had been playing, say, “Allison Jones” not to mention if it had actually been an Asian-American actress in the role there still would have been the rest of the film to deal with.
Thinking of Cameron Crowe’s association with Billy Wilder immortalized in the book “Conversations with Wilder” for which he has my eternal gratitude I went on Twitter after seeing ALOHA and drew a comparison between several past Crowe films and several Wilders in terms of their parallel careers—deciding for a variety of reasons that the acclaimed ALMOST FAMOUS can be seen as his equivalent of THE APARTMENT, the disastrous reception of ELIZABETHTOWN serving as his own THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, WE BOUGHT A ZOO an attempt to make something commercial just like the Lemmon-Matthau THE FRONT PAGE and so on. And I concluded that the undeniably personal yet maybe unworkable ALOHA served as his very own FEDORA, a Wilder which is also admirable (and considerably better) yet also containing problems that go down to its very core. The fine writer Miriam Bale replied that this actually made her want to see the film (gulp, people really are reading what I say on there?) but it took me until now, after I revisited and wrote about FEDORA, to actually take a second look at ALOHA. To be totally honest, I didn’t have a strong dislike for the film a year ago—mostly what I remembered were the pleasant Crowe hangout vibes more than anything else. I didn’t think it was good but it seemed modest and amiable enough, nothing to get too upset over. So what I discovered on this revisit felt like a splash of cold water on the face within the first ten minutes, an unfortunate discovery where almost nothing seemed to work as if I was watching an abbreviated intermediate cut of material that was never correctly focused to begin with. There’s talk in ALOHA of what the past and the future can mean so when it comes to Cameron Crowe maybe those two things are what we should focus on as well. Maybe with this film we need more time for the present to become the past. Unfortunately, I’ve already started writing about it so I guess I have to continue.
Military contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) has arrived in his one-time home of Hawaii to negotiate with locals to allow a blessing on a new pedestrian gate for his boss, billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray) and to assist on a project involving Welch’s impending satellite launch. He is assigned a military liaison in the form of Air Force pilot Allison Ng (Emma Stone) but soon finds himself encountering old flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams) who now has two kids and is married to the near silent Woody (John Krasinski) with two kids which forces Brian to confront the ghosts of why he left Tracy to begin with. But as he spends more time with Allison the two of them are drawn to each other as Brian finds himself dealing with the truth of what Carson Welch has in mind with his satellite launch.
This is kind of sort of a plot synopsis of ALOHA. I think. After several viewings I'm still not entirely sure. Which of course is part of the problem since right from the beginning way too many elements are thrown at us for anything to really cohere. As the opening credits roll we get old home movie footage of Hawaii intercut with military activity as old school Hawaiian music plays that gets interrupted by the expected track by The Who bringing us up to date under a Bradley Cooper voiceover, clearly added after the fact to clarify backstory and set up the plot but it just adds confusion and it seems impossible to know which of these elements to focus on. It’s one of those films where it can be tough to figure out what the relationship between certain characters ar before the start of the film not to mention what the actual story is supposed to be so even fifteen minutes in it feels hard not to wonder what’s going on and what purpose anything serves—even after several viewings there are times when specific information is given that I find myself zoning out, occasionally going back to replay a line that I missed. Is the dialogue too mealy mouthed? Are the actors mumbling? Was the on-set sound recording bad? Is it me? Is it the film? I can understand the rationale behind moving from one scene to the next because a film is supposed to do that, but I’m not always sure why we, allegedly following this story, are moving along with it. There’s too much here but still not enough, as if it began as a 300 page draft cut down to feature length only what needed to stay and what needed to go all got mixed up in the notes.
ALOHA is a movie which is at least partly about accepting the past but we barely understand what that past means for the characters, let alone the present they’re muddling through--the all-powerful billionaire Carson Welch dismisses the past (nostalgia and a trap, he says) and warns of fear of the future (a brutal force that will steamroll you if you’re not watching) in favor of a present that he wants to control. But for all the portentous statements too much of what’s going on feels hazy as if Crowe just wants to get to certain jokes and cute interplay at the expense of story and the greater meaning of it all. The 104 minute running time gives the impression that cut footage would enhance things in a way similar to how the UNTITLED cut of ALMOST FAMOUS, already a good film, made that experience much richer. Unfortunately what can be found on the ALOHA Blu under ‘Alternate Opening’ entirely consists of footage running about 19 minutes, including Jay Baruchel who doesn’t appear in the release version as Cooper’s brother, all taking place before the film begins, making me wonder about a script going into production where apparently the first 20 or so pages didn’t matter. Too much is left vague, as if during editing they got so used to some of the exposition that they just cut it out, forgetting what we needed to know--sampling a few minutes of the audio commentary, Crowe talks about the independent nation of Hawaii headed by Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele who plays himself in the film and what this has to do with the specific reasons for why Cooper’s Brian Gilcrest needs to negotiate with him in the first place making me wonder why this info wasn’t made more clear in the actual movie. At least they could clarify why “taking care of a blessing on a new pedestrian gate” is so important. Maybe background on Hawaii is the sort of thing that should have been brought up in the opening narration instead of the backstory of Brian Gilcrest but then again Alexander Payne had sort of covered that ground at the start of THE DESCENDANTS a few years ago. Look, writing a film is hard. Coming up with the right idea is hard. But it’s as if instead of coming up with a clear idea for what this script was going to be, that ‘one line’ Paddy Chayefsky would tape to his typewriter so he would always stay on theme, Crowe’s version of that one line became ten pages long so he couldn’t see his own screenplay while he was writing it. The movie becomes about so many disparate elements that it winds up not really being about any of them.
My memory of ELIZABETHTOWN, which I haven’t looked at recently, is that it was a mess but that Crowe was putting himself completely out there maybe more than ever before. Until we saw the result, that’s what we wanted Cameron Crowe to do. The modesty of WE BOUGHT A ZOO felt dialed down in comparison as if he was trying to find a personal connection to the story but for once not deal with every single emotion that he’s ever had in his entire life. ALOHA plays as somewhere in between and is maybe more frustrating because of that as if all of those emotions were once in the material but what remains either feels truncated or simply empty, not enough for the right emotional connection to take hold. Spare pieces of dialogue that seem meant to lead to The Big Statement, like how Gilcrest apparently represents ‘the Arrival Myth’ sent to wreak havoc in the sky, feel forgotten in exchange for making the film a smooth ride, a pleasant interlude in Hawaii with likable characters and nonstop music. And a subplot involving nuclear weapons getting launched into space. There is imagery in the cinematography by Eric Gautier which in its occasional placement of characters within the frame hints at a yearning beauty the film never quite reaches but the use of handheld cameras in more intimate scenes which are maybe meant to keep the relationships feeling uneasy comes off as too scattershot, almost as if we’re watching filmed rehearsals and it’s all going to be completely formed when they shoot the real stuff. Things do come to life in a party scene about 40 minutes in which allows us to track glances between various characters as if they’re silently keeping tabs on where others are at that point in the plot so for a few minutes there’s actually some rhythm to things. The sequence also gives us the sight of Bill Murray and Emma Stone dancing to Hall & Oates which, granted, doesn’t have much of anything to do with the rest of the movie. I’m not even sure if the two actors are bothering to stay in character here but for a few minutes the film needs nothing else other than this tiny, unexpected piece of joy.
Storywise, if we’re going to bring the ghost of Billy Wilder, there’s maybe some DNA of AVANTI! and A FOREIGN AFFAIR in ALOHA – you could even say that this film feels a little made up of pieces of the plots of those films turned inside out only I’m still a little hazy on the specifics of what the plot of ALOHA is without looking at the Wikipedia summary (that’s a lie—I had to read it) to figure out why Brian Gilcrest is so integral to Carson Welch’s plan to begin with or the vagueness of the Afghanistan backstory (more to it in those 19 minutes cut from the start, not that we need them back) or why Allison Ng attaches herself to him so insistent about the glory of his purest self as if she’s been studying up on his childhood or why his old girlfriend has avoided telling him something important for so long. It’s a hangout movie which occasionally seems to remember that we need to be very concerned about certain plot points but the information hasn’t been made clear enough to get us to remember why. The idea of personal triumph coming out of failure is a familiar one in Cameron Crowe’s films whether ELIZABETHTOWN or even a little of JERRY MAGUIRE too but it never means very much this time, playing more like another encapsulation of Cameron Crowe themes than a story for its own sake that has an emotional impact on its own. The film wants to tell us that the answers to everything that we’ve forgotten in our cynicism are there as long as the sky above us remains pure and I’m open to searching for the positivity in that metaphor but it never winds up meaning very much.
There’s the feeling that Crowe supplied his actors, even some of the bit players, with pages and pages of character biographies which makes some of them pop during their brief time onscreen—for whatever reason, Ivana Milicevic’s mostly silent Carson Welch biographer lurking on the edges of scenes reminds me of her henchwoman dropping a mickey in James Bond’s drink in CASINO ROYALE—but he forgot to insert the necessary dialogue into the script so the relationships would make sense. Occasionally moments connect like the look on Emma Stone’s face when she realizes that Bradley Cooper is opening up to her but even though some of those touches feel like pure Cameron Crowe too often they’re isolated from everything else so massive close-ups of Rachel McAdams as a connection gets made, no matter how well shot they are, don’t have any impact.
Clarification is missing and maybe so are the right grace notes, maybe what we’re given just isn’t enough to build the foundation of a plot structure on so it doesn’t stand. You can look at an action thriller and say ‘cut it down to the plot’ but if the story is based on human interaction that requires some sort of emotional logic, even if it’s only movie logic, the plot beats aren’t going to be enough so it contains containing a haphazard pace which made some of it seem to take forever and seeming rushed through at the same time, reactions from characters whether happy or sad that come too abruptly. The release version feels like a compromise so everyone can agree, ‘Well, at least it isn’t too long,’ and finally get the movie finished but that doesn’t help us very much. I’m still a little vague on the plot mechanics of Cooper sending a sonic upload to the satellite which seems like a very Crowe-ian concept, similar to Tom Cruise being surrounded by the overwhelming mass of pop culture in VANILLA SKY or maybe to him it’s a cinematic representation of what it was like to be a kid hearing “A Day in the Life” for the first time, that the only way to stay pure in the world is to let all that wash away from you. It just never feels very clear why it needs to be a part of this movie.
Maybe Cameron Crowe wants to believe in the sweet-sour aspect of Wilder’s worldview more than he really does. He’s too cheery and optimistic about human nature for the sour to play but at the same time he’s trying too hard to remind us of that optimism instead of just letting certain moments happen. He can’t seem to bring himself to make anyone unlikable, at least for longer than a few minutes, and it leaves the movie with characters yelling at each other when there isn’t any real conflict. The messiness of the film isn’t uninteresting, it’s just frustrating in the intensity of its haphazardness. And it’s depressing because, Crowe or not, this is the sort of film I want to defend and Crowe is one of the few people left with any sort of clout to make it at a studio anymore. At least, he was until this film. Does James L. Brooks have any projects in the pipeline these days? Should I revisit HOW DO YOU KNOW next? The final scene closes things out on a moment of grace which would have the potential to be absolutely transcendent, finally giving beauty to the recurring theme of silent communication throughout the film, if anything connected to it beforehand had a shred of emotional plausibility. But it doesn’t. So it doesn't. And writing about that isn’t much fun at all.
In terms of performances, the problem is more the film than the actors whether it’s Bradley Cooper who feels like he’s trying to make it work even though we have to take much of his character’s reawakening on faith or that this is the rare film where Bill Murray doing the Bill Murray thing feels wrong somehow or any of the actors staring at each other, mostly at Cooper, with unaccountable yearning that they can't quite put into words. Some of them, like Danny McBride as “Fingers” don’t get to make much of any impression at all. Alec Baldwin at least gets a few laughs by calling Cooper things like “Mr. Three Day Beard Boy” during his big scene chewing Gilcrest out but when the next time he’s seen his Air Force General is relaxing in a Hawaiian shirt drinking a beer it feels like there’s some sort of joke there about the discrepancy but it’s tough to tell. I don’t even want to blame Emma Stone for that controversy connected to her since as an actress she seems custom made to star in a Cameron Crowe film but everything about her character just seems tone deaf by now, a female device to ‘save’ his male surrogate one time too many by now. Allison Ng is a fighter pilot and apparently some sort of pet project of Hillary Clinton’s according to dialogue but in the context of ALOHA what’s most important is that she’s the lead character’s last chance to achieve the glory that is his destiny, nothing more.
Rachel McAdams is also stranded, clearly bringing as much strength as she has trying to make her part work as if Crowe was so determined to squeeze some sort of love triangle in here whether it fit or not. Through no fault of hers, it’s either a character who didn’t need to be one of the leads or maybe should have been the lead in a different movie. That also extends to John Krasinski role as her husband jealous of Gilcrest but their conflict never means anything and his sometimes silent, sometimes not nature manages to be both overly cute and a head-scratcher as well. It’s the mostly silent relationship between Cooper and Danielle Rose Russell as McAdams’ daughter that almost gets there thanks to a few glances at the right moments but with the rest of the movie surrounding them it’s just not enough.
Early one evening way back in 2005 I was walking through the Paramount lot. As I passed a window where a light was on I glanced inside and could see sitting in an office, obviously engaged in an intense discussion with someone, Cameron Crowe. This was only weeks before ELIZABETHTOWN’S disastrous premiere in Toronto and I’ve always imagined that in the conversation taking place at that moment he knew what was coming. After all, he’s no dummy. And now over ten years later I suppose I don’t believe the Crowe optimism anymore, not while I’m getting older, not in 2016. Which may not be his fault but it also doesn’t feel like what the world is anymore. People are too cruel. I haven’t even looked at ALMOST FAMOUS, probably my favorite of his, for a long time now since I’m afraid the connection would be gone. His past several films have been about the redemption which can come out of returning to wreckage, the triumph which can come out of failure. And I still hope he finds that redemption—for starters, there’s his upcoming Showtime series ROADIES. The thing about ALOHA is, I want to I want to believe in a movie that contains the line, “Tonight’s the first night I’m truly glad I lived.” Right now, in the midst of all this depression and anger and cynicism and pain, I need to believe that. This just isn’t the film to make it happen. Apparently what I said on Twitter a year ago really did get Miriam Bale to see it and she wasn’t kind (looking up her tweets, “fascinatingly awful” is one term used) but if she held this against me she never said anything. I hope she doesn’t. Consider that right there a small piece of optimism. It’s better than nothing.