It’s difficult to imagine now, but there was a brief period when Cameron Crowe was one of the most beloved filmmakers on the planet. His debut feature Say Anything… became the standard for emotional teen dramas, a casual and realistic outing that introduced viewers to his knack for turning seemingly ordinary scenes into genuinely iconic cinema moments. His follow-up, the hilariously dated grunge set Singles was less critically acclaimed, but helped define his style even more, culminating in his two greatest achievements – Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. The former took his career from successful to stratospheric, successfully pairing his now customary naturalistic style to the biggest superstar on the planet in Tom Cruise. The latter was better still, with Crowe crafting his best work around a personal story based on his own experiences as a journalist for Rolling Stone. It was an ascent that made him the darling of American cinema, exploding ever higher with every new release.
Vanilla Sky was next, teaming him again with Cruise for a remake of the Spanish thriller Open Your Eyes. While clearly a step down in quality from the Oscar winning Almost Famous, it garnered a pass from most critics simply for being the first time he had stepped outside of his usual genre parameters. It wasn’t until Elizabethtown in 2005 that any real doubt began to emerge. Here was a story that had all the classic Crowe tropes – the prominent soundtrack, the funny yet realistic dialogue, the heavy splashes of sentimentality – yet struggled to hit any of the marks he had surpassed with each of his previous five movies. Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst were an awkward pairing as the film’s leads, but the biggest failures were all in the director’s court. With a running time too long, a plotline too convenient and not nearly enough likeable characters, it all culminates in a self-indulgent road trip narrated by Dunst’s imposingly quirky Claire in a truly forced ending. His next film We Bought A Zoo was only slightly better, a light and breezy Matt Damon vehicle that passed the time entertainingly enough but disappeared from the memory as soon as the final credits rolled.
The downfall of Cameron Crowe reaches its nadir with Aloha. There are faint outlines of his earlier brilliance in everything he does here, small hints of familiarity that unfortunately only serve to remind us just how far off his best work this film actually is. Bradley Cooper plays Brian Gilcrest, a military contractor returning to Hawaii with the hope of resurrecting his struggling career. With Emma Stone’s Captain Allison Ng as guide, Gilcrest looks to navigate his way past Bill Murray’s excellently named billionaire Carson Welch, inconvenienced locals and an ex-lover in Rachel McAdams. Crowe has called the film a tribute to Hawaii and while the setting looks great, it fails just as much in that sense as it does everywhere else. There’s a half-heartedness to it all – seemingly important scenes don’t ever seem to go anywhere, major plot developments never feel completely earned, and worst of all it’s made up of characters who don’t ever develop enough to warrant the director’s usually uplifting third acts.
It’s also the weakest soundtrack of any of his films. Crowe’s uncanny ability to use music to heighten a scene is his most celebrated quality, from the memorable use of Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes in Say Anything… to the Tiny Dancer singalong in Almost Famous, so it comes as no surprise that the worst movie in his catalogue also contains most of his more uninspiring musical choices. As disappointing as Elizabethtown and We Bought A Zoo were, their worst moments were almost always saved from complete failure by great songs. By all rights Elizabethtown should have been ruined entirely during Susan Sarandon’s bizarre comedy routine at her husband’s wake, but a scorching live cover of Lynard Skynard’s Free Bird immediately following it completely cancelled out what had preceded it. The cheesy, sentimental ridiculousness of the We Bought A Zoo finale is saved by the best use yet of Sigur Rós’s Hoppípolla, an undeniably emotional combination that finishes an otherwise ordinary offering on a high.
Maybe the problem here is that there are just too many scenes in need of saving. The songs themselves aren’t horrible. Crowe’s musical choices usually slot into a scene like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, perfectly fitting and able to completely encapsulate the emotions of the characters, but here he can’t seem to find the right balance. Stone and Murray’s carefree dance routine to the sounds of Hall & Oats comes close, while a revealing look between two characters over a hula class in the very last shot is beautifully backed by Hawaiian artist Cyril Pahinui’s gorgeous Ipo Lei Manu. There are suggestions of a much better movie here, clues to a vision never even remotely realized.
Stone is the one shining light – her performance was hidden amongst the white washing controversy of her character, but it’s clearly the best part of the whole endeavour. The other actors are all bizarrely underused, from John Krasinski’s near mute love rival right up to Cooper’s main character, but Stone is great. Easily one of the most charismatic performers going around, Stone sparkles in each scene, giving life to a frustratingly bland storyline in general. Her casting as a part Hawaiian, part Chinese character is completely nonsensical, but Stone is at her loveable best. Crowe is usually able to work wonders when he has a charming lead to act out his equally charming dialogue, but here Stone’s charm seems out of place, a spark crowded with boring characters and frustratingly ordinary direction.
At 105 minutes it’s one of the shortest movies Crowe’s ever released, yet feels so much longer. Never a ground-breaking director by any means, he was still one of the rare filmmakers capable of creating intelligent, natural crowd-pleasers that appealed to both indie critics and mainstream audiences. Is Crowe now the directing equivalent of Robert De Niro’s acting career? Starting slowly, burning brightly at its peak, before settling into a depressing series of embarrassing studio comedies that he has no interest in escaping. Or is this just an unfortunate ten year low period that he’ll eventually recover from? Let’s hope it’s the latter.