Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin, John Krasinski. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe.
I’m going to address, as succinctly as I can, the controversy stirred up by Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, and then review the film on its own merits, which of course it deserves as an artistic creation for its own sake.
Emma Stone is Allison Ng, an air force captain stationed in Honolulu. She has a half-Chinese father and a half-Hawaiian mother, making her half Caucasion, a quarter Chinese, and a quarter Hawaiian. In Hawaii, that’s not an unusual mix, and Crowe has stated that this character was always meant to look Caucasian and to have issues about not looking Hawaiian. This, too, is not unusual; in fact, it demonstrates a deeper understanding of Hawaii’s mix of ethnicities than Hollywood is known to represent.
I admit that I’m still confused about the controversy, but if I get most of it, The two major issues among complainants are (1) that very few characters in leading roles in mainstream films are Asian or Pacific Islanders, so when a prominent character like this comes along, it should be given to an Asian or Pacific Islander actor, since Asian and Pacific Islander actors almost never get a fair shot at ethnically non-specific parts, and (2) that Stone doesn’t look at all Chinese or Hawaiian, and therefore is undeserving of the part. Boiled down to its essence, the problem with casting Stone is that (1) she isn’t actually Hawaiian or Chinese, thus taking a role someone else should get, and (2) she doesn’t look Hawaiian or Chinese, thus representing these ethnicities poorly, or white-washing a character of color.
I agree with where the first complaint comes from, but I do not think a director should cast a lesser actor merely because he or she is descended from certain people. In much of the published outrage when Aloha was in theaters were lists of actors from Hawaii who would have been great. The sentiment is admirable, but I wholeheartedly disagree with the assessment of those actors’ chops. Emma Stone is a very, very good actress, with a presence and likability matched by very few actors her age. If you first saw her in Superbad, as I did, you know what I’m talking about. Even in that minor role, she had the presence of a star. Sure, she’s had a few bad films and bad performances, but it’s tough to argue against her talent. To be clear, I am not saying those local actresses are not good. I am saying that what I’ve seen of them does not tell me they are clearly better choices for a starring role opposite Rachel McAdams and Bradley Cooper. And yes, I understand the irony of not being able to picture those actors in these roles when those actors have never been given a shot at these roles. It’s a problem I don’t deny, but I will repeat my assertion that even in small, supporting roles, Emma Stone gave every indication that she would someday be the star she is today.
I’m less objective about the second complaint, which implies that Hawaiian-ness or Chinese-ness must be represented by a certain look. Like the Allison character, I am of mixed ethnicity, and I’ve been told my whole life that I don’t look Caucasian. I’m totally okay with that assessment, but it’s unfair to deny me my racial identity, as some have, just because I don’t look a certain way. My sister looks much more Caucasian than Asian, and I’ve seen the way some people treat her with a certain mistrust because of it, a treatment I have never received despite the fact that our lineage is identical. Stone looks as Asian as I look Caucasian, so I don’t see a disconnect between her appearance and this character’s racial composition, and neither should anyone who spends even a little bit of time in Hawaii.
It is a conversation worth having, because representation is no small issue. I wrote my Masters thesis on sex representation in children’s literature, so I am sensitive to the cause. Still, a concern about the issue doesn’t have to be expressed in outrage, especially not the sort that implies an artist’s responsibility to serving any issue other than the realization of the artist’s vision. If the writer-director’s vision says Emma Stone will best serve his art, he owes an explanation to nobody. If it succeeds, the success belongs to him and the other contributors to the film’s production. Likewise if it fails. And if it fails, maybe it is because he didn’t cast a more Hawaiian-looking actress in the role, but that’s his decision to make, with no apology. It’s unlikely Crowe would tell you how to make your film; why is it your place to tell him how to make his?
So strong are my feelings about art for art’s sake that the more I read about the outrage, the more determined I was to liking Aloha. Alas. Despite my fervent efforts, that just isn’t meant to be, because Aloha is a bad movie, and the casting of Emma Stone is a huge, huge reason.
But it’s not because Stone isn’t Hawaiian or Chinese. It’s because she hasn’t spent enough time in Hawaii. Her pronunciations, which are mostly okay in a textbook sense, sound forced, as if she’s just learned them and is auditioning for a part. The syllables are all there, but the inflections and rhythms are all off, and while someone not from Hawaii might not recognize a mispronunciation, just about any reasonably attentive moviegoer can recognize a struggling actor, and that’s where Stone’s performance fails.
I was convinced of this during a few scenes near the end, when Stone is forced to reach into that place actors go whenever they really have to emote sincerely. For those short moments, you see the actress she usually is, and you see why Crowe thought she was right for this part. Unburdened with unfamiliar ethnic backgrounds, Cooper and McAdams are their usual magnetic selves, with McAdams performing especially well. As well as possible in a pretty bad story, anyway.
I’ll spare you too much of a summary, but the guts of it look like this: Cooper is a former military pilot hired to work with a billionaire in launching a satellite from Hawaii. He needs the permission of a native Hawaiian group (modeled after an actual group), and because he’s friends with the group’s leader, he’s well suited for the job. But the military doesn’t trust him, so Allison Ng is assigned to tag along and keep him out of trouble. Meanwhile, he reconnects with a former lover (McAdams), now living on base with her pilot husband (John Krasinski) and two children. She’s unhappy with her marriage, and it seems Cooper has come along at just the right time for the saying of long-unsaid things.
Crowe tries to do a lot with this script, most of it admirable but misguided. He calls this film his “love letter to Hawaii,” and it’s a sincere letter, but it betrays an insufficient relationship with the fiftieth state for what the movie tries to do. Casting Alec Baldwin and Bill Murray in cartoonish roles exaggerates the story’s lack of authenticity, and there are a few silent exchanges between Cooper and John Krasinski that are well imagined but cartoonishly executed. Combined, these missteps remind me of those maddening days in the Sunday funnies, when the inking is off by just a few millimeters, bleeding over the black lines meant to give them their purpose.