Aloha's Hawaii Shoots for Magic and Realism

The island has long been an idealized and exoticized location for American films, but Cameron Crowe’s new movie makes more of an attempt to understand it than most.

Sony Pictures

If romantic comedies like 50 First Dates, Punch-Drunk Love, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are any indication, Hawaii is the destination for American men looking to sort out their troubled love lives. With a sense of being somehow removed from the real world, and the help of umbrella drinks and warm trade winds, it’s a setting that’s both familiar and yet exotic enough to offer a subtler version of the foreigners-finding-themselves-abroad narrative, crystallized in films like Lost In Translation and Eat Pray Love.

Cameron Crowe’s new film, Aloha, is the latest to recycle the magical-island trope in service of a goofy love story. But unlike its predecessors, Aloha surprisingly gets a lot right in its depiction of Hawaii—mostly by showing respect for its traditions and people—even if its attempts at realism nonetheless clash with the inherently romantic view of island life built into the premise.

The film follows Brian Gilchrist (Cooper), a defense contractor who returns to Hawaii for a project launching a satellite into space. He reconnects with his ex-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams), who’s now married to a comically un-talkative pilot (John Krasinski), and meets Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a manic-pixie fighter pilot who’s purportedly a quarter-Hawaiian and a quarter-Chinese. The whole story is a tangled mess. Aloha sees itself as a quirky, funny, and sad, but loudly announces when it’s trying to be those things, while its attempts to develop its characters somehow feel strenuously lazy—like a driver who wastes an hour looking for a shortcut.

Ahead of Aloha’s release, Sony faced criticism from the Media Action Network for Asian Americans​ for not featuring islanders or Asian Americans in speaking roles, despite Hawaii being only 30 percent white. There’s some truth to the group’s complaint that the film uses Hawaii as an “exotic backdrop,” and the entire main cast is indeed white (Alec Baldwin, Bill Murray, and Danny McBride also make appearances). But MANAA neglected to mention that the film features Bumpy Kanahele, a highly respected, indigenous Hawaiian nationalist leader who plays himself. Kanahele speaks on his own turf and in his own words with Gilchrist and Ng about the problems and concerns of native Hawaiians, before inviting them to eat and drink with the rest of the community. It’s a touching, if short-lived, vignette that indisputably stems from genuine reverence and compassion for the people of Hawaii. Besides, when was the last time a major motion picture even glanced at the lives of America’s indigenous people with something other than mockery?

The film, for all its frustrating narrative flaws, gets other little things right, too: showing the islanders taking off their shoes before entering the house and highlighting the fraught relationship between Hawaiians and the U.S. military. (Aloha goes so far as to use the incredibly loaded term “occupation,” giving voice to a controversial, but forcefully held local viewpoint.) It also casts actual Hawaiians to play Native Hawaiian characters, unlike 50 First Dates, which had the noted character actor Rob Schneider play a shirtless, marijuana-loving Hawaiian caricature named Ula.

But it’s true that most of these characters don’t have any lines, which may give the unfortunate impression that Kanahele’s just a local mouthpiece—or a symbol—shoehorned into the storyline. This is a point that will undoubtedly come off to many as an unnecessarily critical to many viewers. But to understand MANAA’s frustration, it’s important to remember that many Americans see Hawaii less as a real place than as a promise on a postcard, already reduced to an abstraction, and its native inhabitants even more so.

It’s hard, too, to defend Aloha against claims that it overly romanticizes Hawaii. The opening credits run over old-timey footage set to ukelele music—a kind of mood-collage approach that bogs down the rest of the film. (In place of realistic interactions, Aloha often uses swelling music to signal that an emotional connection has taken place.) Many of the characters talk, for no discernible reason, about Hawaiian mythology—the gods Lono and Pele; the menehune, or little people who live in the forests; the huaka'i pō, or warrior ghosts. Ng, Stone’s character, frequently comments on the mana (power or spiritual energy) of a particular area, as if noting the feng shui of a room. It’s within this vaguely magical, supposedly authentic context that Cooper’s character manages to finally open up to others, make amends for his past mistakes, and, of course, get the girl.

Given all this, it’s easier to see Aloha for what it is: a film that prioritizes the white American viewpoint, just like the vast majority of films and TV shows that will come out this year. Which is not in itself an inherently bad thing, and doesn’t erase the film’s laudable progress. But even someone who isn’t offended by stories set in predominantly non-white areas featuring mostly white actors can admit such stories are unrealistic. As a result, unnecessarily “whitewashed” films like Aloha will encounter more and more pushback as time goes on, because those stories will feel increasingly at odds with how Americans see the country they live in.

Of course, attempts to diversify Hollywood will invariably lead to works that inspire cognitive dissonance. Anyone who’s lived in Hawaii will feel an awkward mix of recognition and disillusionment when watching Aloha. As Cooper’s character explains with all the requisite cynicism that he’ll later be cured of: "Nobody wants to live where they are, they want to live in a fantasy.” In this film,  if not in life, viewers aren’t forced to choose between myth and reality.