Aloha Means Goodbye? The Curious Case of Cameron Crowe’s Diminishing Returns

05/29/2015 9:00 AM |
"No Aloha (press screenings)"

Cameron Crowe has a new movie out this weekend, and given his career over the past decade, what happened to Cameron Crowe? is not an unreasonable question. It’s not quite what happened to Rob Reiner? or what happened to M. Night Shyamalan?, though, and I do wonder how fair it is to Crowe’s gifts as a filmmaker and, moreover, the simple facts of his filmography. In the past fifteen years, Crowe made his dream project and won a screenplay Oscar for it (Almost Famous); notched his second and third-highest grossing movies ever (Vanilla Sky and We Bought a Zoo); and suffered one unequivocal critical and commercial flop in the form of Elizabethtown. Nonetheless, the Crowe brand (if we can label Crowe’s films as things that can, in fact, be sold, bought, and processed) is obviously in disrepair as Aloha cruises into theaters with limited press screenings and heavy embargos on anyone who managed to catch one.

I haven’t seen Aloha—I couldn’t make it to that one screening they had—but I will see it this weekend, because twice Crowe has made one of my favorite movies ever. Besides the aforementioned Almost Famous, there’s Say Anything, or as I frequently refer to it, a better John Hughes movie than anything John Hughes ever made. In between accessible masterpieces, Crowe used to make good movies like Singles and Jerry Maguire (which I recognize as the Crowe movie that probably means the most to “them,” the nebulous moviegoing public); now, after his last couple of in-betweeners without a great movie to chase them, anything as good as Singles would be greeted rapturously. Early word suggests that Aloha suggests it will not be greeted rapturously. Still, I hold out hope for the Crowe of old, even if it’s in minor form.

I think one reason the what-the-hell-dude question hangs over Crowe’s career despite only a couple of underperformers is that close watchers of his work can see him running out of gas before their eyes. Rewatching Almost Famous recently in its director’s-cut form (running a full forty minutes longer than the theatrical version!), it occurred to me that the movie, especially in the longer cut, feels like everything Crowe loves—rock music, sincere characters, witty dialogue, wistful but complicated romance—pulled together into the kind of self-defining (and autobiographical!) epic that filmmakers sometimes have trouble topping. If Almost Famous sees Crowe pouring as much of himself into a movie as possible, Vanilla Sky feels like an all-out emptying of the tank—in a good way. The oddball Tom Cruise starrer followed Almost Famous with uncharacteristic speed, and its jumble of pop-culture influences makes the movie sort of an appendix. Crowe referred to it as a “cover,” because he was remaking the Spanish film Open Your Eyes, and indeed it’s likably bashed out in a way most of Crowe’s work isn’t.

Elizabethtown, for example, certainly isn’t bashed out. It took four years to come together and actually get released, as long a gestation period as any in Crowe’s career to that point, and it’s the anti-Almost Famous: a grab bag of Crowe signifiers without any strong organizing principle. It’s got some road-trippy mixtape stuff from Famous, the professional crisis of Jerry Maguire, and the family dynamics of Say Anything; some of this stuff is even well-observed, but other parts have Susan Sarandon doing a tap-dance routine at a memorial service (even here, parallels: it’s like Kate Hudson’s lovely Cat Stevens dance scene in Almost Famous gone to hell). The less messy We Bought a Zoo, if anything, is worse: clumsy, recycled, not especially funny, more dopily boomer-centric despite not starring any actual boomers (great ending, though; I wish Crowe had saved it for a good movie). If Vanilla Sky emptied the tank, the Crowe movies that followed scrape the inside of the tank, then go rooting around on the ground near the tank looking for salvageable fuel.

Yet Aloha is enticing not just to Crowe fans hoping that it’s not as much of a Elizabethtown mulligan as it looks like (it even has Alec Baldwin chewing out the chastened hero, exactly what happened to Orlando Bloom—remember him?—at the beginning of that earlier movie), but, clearly, to actors: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, Danny McBride, John Krasinski and Baldwin all wanted to work with Crowe this time, presumably based at least a little bit on the screenplay Amy Pascal considered so unready, lamenting the supposed disaster-in-waiting in a leaked Sony email last year. It’s also possible that a high-caliber cast is attracted to Crowe’s work for the same reason top-tier actors still line up to work with Crowe’s mentor James L. Brooks despite misfires like How Do You Know (which, like Elizabethtown, I respect and enjoy more than most): there just aren’t a lot of big-studio romantic comedy-dramas, the kind that can make movie stars look like regular (albeit also stunningly beautiful and charming) people. Just look at Crowe’s two-time star Tom Cruise: he used to be able to get an oddity like Vanilla Sky to $100 million more or less on his own. As good as some of his recent films have been, almost all of them indicate a retreat into action, adventure, and science fiction.

And if the job of New Cameron Crowe is indeed open, it hasn’t exactly been posted on the Hollywood jobs site. As mentioned, Aloha came under scrutiny after the Sony email, and besides the obvious fact that studio executives may not always have the best taste or the strongest faith in filmmakers, it was particularly striking to see such stress spilled over what is, in the end, a $40 million movie that will almost certainly make back its budget at the domestic box office, even if it’s not a hit, by virtue of starring a bunch of famous people and being the only wide-release summer movie that resembles, via its marketing, a romantic comedy, a drama, and a movie for adults (The D Train counted, briefly, but that’s already been evacuated from most of its screens). Look at the release calendar: the closest any other wide releases in June come to any of those genres are family movies (Pixar’s Inside Out and the boy-and-his-soldier-dog movie Max), the indie throwback comedy Dope, or, ha, Entourage: The Fucking Movie. That’s not to say those movies (or, for that matter, Spy) won’t offer genuine human relationships, just that Aloha has this field more or less to itself for weeks, at least until Magic Mike XXL and probably until Trainwreck, to be released (and inevitably become a “surprise” hit) seven weeks hence.

If a relatively inexpensive Cameron Crowe movie with several big stars is considered any kind of real risk, it’s only natural that smaller versions of the Crowe thing would be considered arthouse specialty items. Andrew Bujalski’s Results, for example, also opening this weekend, has a little bit of Crowe in its bloodstream. It’s by no means an imitation; for all I know, Bujalski has no interest in Crowe whatsoever. But in Results in particular, Bujalski seems to love his characters with a generosity I associate with Crowe at his best; here, like so many Crowe pictures, is a movie without a real bad guy. In fact, it’s so open-hearted that Bujalski allows his movie to wander all over the place, despite only having three major characters: Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a middle-aged weirdo who has inherited a large sum of money; Kat (Cobie Smulders), the personal trainer he hires with that money; and Trevor (Guy Pearce), the guy who owns the gym where Kat works.

The three of them kinda-sorta form a love triangle, but they hardly ever share the screen at the same time. In fact, each of the three leads steps out of the narrative for at least ten minutes at a time, confounding any expectations about who we’re supposed to want to end up with who. It’s a wonderful sensation for a romantic comedy, but less so during the passages that make you question whether this is a romantic comedy at all, at which point you may also wonder if Corrigan is playing a wacky neighbor type whose point of view dominates much of the first half-hour, or if he’s a rom-com hero too “pudgy and mellow,” as he puts it, to hold the film’s center.

Even with stubbornly bizarre way of managing his small cast, though, includes plenty of affection from the filmmaker. Pearce’s Trevor, in particular, is the guy other movies would make into the dopey antagonist, an obstacle for the quirky outcast looking for love, so it’s remarkable that Bujalski not only keeps him from becoming a punchline but sees him as a fully formed human being deserving of respect. Kat, meanwhile, is allowed to be prickly and blunt-spoken, and the movie doesn’t soften her up for romance—a stark contrast to the last few Crowe movies, where women tend to drop into the movie seemingly already in love with the heroes for no reason anyone can adequately explain. Like the less programmatic Crowe characters, the three leads of Results remain defiantly themselves, even when going through emotional growth. Bujalski even maintains Crowe-like music world connections, albeit more indie rock than boomer classics: he hires Bishop Allen’s Justin Rice (who also starred in Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation) to compose the percussive score.

Granted, Bujalski’s no-budget roots are just as visible as any latent Crowe influence. Results is his glossiest film ever (it even includes a training montage, albeit of the lackadaisical variety), but it still maintains a certain aesthetic shabbiness: not in its texture or colors, but the chintziness of Trevor’s gym and office, which look like the kind of thinly dressed sets mumblecore movies can sometimes obscure with grainy or fuzzy images. This, at the moment, is where most offbeat charater-based dramedies hang out: in sets that look just a step or two above student-film level. Results sways back and forth: leaning into more adult, clear-spoken territory before leaning back into Bujalski’s scrappier, stranger tendencies. It’s not always satisfying, but it never settles into a predictable rhythm, either. That unpredictability may be what Crowe, for all of his professional polish, hast lost.