How ‘Aloha’ Falls Short

We nearly see the real Hawaii, almost

There’s a tendency in American films to portray Hawaii in the most stereotypical manner. Life in the islands is either an Elvis Presley movie or a tropical utopia populated by wealthy Caucasians.

The trend of emphasizing Hawaii’s natural beauty over all else has been an approach by filmmakers from the beginning. Aside from Thomas Edison’s black and white footage of Lahaina, Maui (silent films that are hard to find, but striking), all of the early films depicting Hawaii before or after statehood evoke an utter fantasy.

Of course, Hawaii’s tourist industry thrives on the image of Joe Tourist lying in a hammock, a margarita in hand and a coconut bra-wearing hula dancer in the foreground.

Life in Hawaii (for those who exist outside of resorts), however, is nothing like this, and movies rarely get this right.

The population is a blend of Japanese, Samoan, Portuguese, Filipino, Chinese, Polynesian, Caucasian and other people of varying ethnicities, for starters. The slang language spoken in Hawaii by locals, pidgin English, is a rich blend of English, Hawaiian and Portuguese words, though it’s such a form of verbal jazz it sounds different and ranges in thickness from speaker to speaker.

With Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha,” released earlier this summer but available on Blu-ray beginning Aug. 25, it finally seemed as if an American filmmaker was trying to portray the real, modern-day Hawaii, and that viewers would be able to witness his efforts in a Maui movie theater.

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“Aloha” has a scene early on in which Bradley Cooper’s character visits a Nation of Hawaii village, meets with “Bumpy” Kanahele (playing himself) and discusses the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty. This portion of the film isn’t flawless and it doesn’t salvage the film’s narrative flaws. Yet the scene reveals Hawaiian sovereignty, Hawaii’s dark history of being a stolen nation and native sons and daughters living in isolation from everyone else.

It’s a very current, touchy and politically charged topic in a mainstream American movie (and a romantic comedy at that).

At the very least, Crowe’s film is well-intentioned and doesn’t exploit or condescend in its depiction of modern-day Hawaii. In fact, few films are more earnest in their political commentary (witness a tiki bar party with uniformed militants, set to Tears For Fear’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”) and cautioning against abusing the soil and soul of sacred lands.

While much of the film takes place in a military base, Crowe allows his camera to capture, in small doses, the burning desires of the people who live on Oahu, who struggle to make a difference.

Crowe’s film is well-intentioned and doesn’t exploit or condescend in its depiction of modern-day Hawaii.

Unfortunately, while the Hawaiian sovereignty angle is a key subplot for the story (Cooper’s detached protagonist becomes more invested in the needs of Hawaii and those around him), it’s one of several subplots that need more time to breathe and are compressed by the running time.

As the film progressed, lots of great little scenes became overshadowed by a predictable love story, a too-on-the-nose military subplot and supporting characters that either needed fleshing out or elimination. There’s a lot of aloha in “Aloha” but too much of everything else, as well.

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When the film ended, clusters of filmgoers were seen in the movie theater lobby, discussing the film at length. Considering how rare a movie like “Aloha” is, and the pre-release controversy that greeted it over the title alone, a post-screening talk seemed entirely necessary.

The consensus was that the controversy wasn’t merited, as the film was actually quite respectful of Hawaii and its people, but the film itself was less than great.

This reviewer certainly enjoyed seeing aspects of Hawaiian culture and history on the big screen, more so than watching Front Street Lahaina get totaled during the stunning opening scene of “Hereafter.” I also wish Crowe had a longer cut of a movie that has so much to say. He came pretty close to giving us a great movie about a magnificent place. Now I’m waiting for someone to come along, do him one better and create a film that offers not only cultural respect but narrative clarity.

Barry Wurst is a film critic based in Makawao, Hawaii.

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