Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace

Does the original trilogy justice in terms of heart, action, and fun —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Writer/Director Cameron Crowe brings his cast and crew to Hawai’i to make a movie. It’s a mostly laid-back affair about opening up to new possibilities. Apropos of its setting, the film is at its best when it tries to do the least.

Love Triangle

Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) is a military contractor. When he was in the service, he was stationed in Hawaii, and he is now returning. He’s part of the entourage of Carson Wells (Bill Murray, playing a space billionaire). They are here to launch a new rocket, but first Brian has to do some public relations. His job involves the moving and re-blessing of an ancient Indian burial ground (er... “Hawaiian” burial ground) to make room for the rocket.

The Air Force assigns Brian a handler, Captain Alison Ng (Emma Stone). She’s probably a decade his junior, and she did her homework on him... turns out she’s even kind of a fan, if such a thing can be said about military professionals. She has a deep interest in astronomy and she mistakenly believes that Brian has one too. It’s something he seems to have outgrown, and he’s a little annoyed by her cheerful search for common ground.

If Brian has a romantic interest, it might be his ex Tracy (Rachel McAdams), now married to a pilot who “doesn’t talk” (John Krasinski). Crowe plays Krasinski’s silent husband for laughs by making him one of the more expressive characters in the film. He later undermines the performance by adding subtitles. Tracy has two adorable children. Her 8-year-old son Mitchell (Jaeden Lieberher) is into Hawaiian folklore, and he sees Brian’s arrival as the fulfillment of a Hawaiian prophecy.

People, not Plot

Crowe also takes us to the “Nation of Hawai’i” compound where Brian seeks the blessing of its leader Bumpy Kanahele (playing himself). That’s where Brian comes to understand that Captain Ng is a native Hawiian — blonde and European, but born and devoted to Hawai’i. She knows the myths, legends, and history as well as anyone.

All this, plus Alec Baldwin as a gruff general, plus a couple other characters with interesting quirks (including one with “psychotic hands”)... why Aloha doesn’t need, nor have room for, a plot.

Unfortunately, Crowe crams in a plot during the last twenty minutes: Maybe our rocket has a secret payload. Maybe it’s a weapon. And maybe Brian knows about it. And maybe Brian really is the fulfillment of a Hawaiian prophecy.

Working backwards, the plot points explain certain expository dialogue that deadened otherwise interesting scenes between characters earlier in the film. Brian reuniting with his remarried ex turns into an excuse for her son to mention the story of “The Arrival.” Brian and Captain Ng in the compound of a the Hawai’ian nationalist leader becomes an excuse for her to gush about the edict that the sky remain peaceful, an attempt to make a possible weapon on a rocket seem even more meaningful.

Hang Loose

Luckily, the humanism of Crowe and his cast makes the overall experience palatable, though the movie lurches rather than tracing a graceful arc.

Cooper’s Brian is too annoyed with Stone’s Ng, too soon. Is that simply because “annoyed” is an easy emotion to play, or is the script out of sync with the performances somewhat? Also, Cooper’s character develops a sudden skill for computer hacking at the end that seemed to come from out of nowhere.

Stone’s performance is grating at first, but she keeps it up and we get to know her. There is a real person behind the fa├žade. I ended up liking her performance best of all.

But Crowe’s script tries to do far too much. It would have been better to hang loose.