Cameron Crowe’s latest film, Aloha (2015) is not nearly as bad as you’ve been led to believe. Yes, Emma Stone, with those huge eyes, plays a one-quarter Hawaiian and one-quarter Chinese fighter pilot, and Bradley Cooper is as irksome as he usually is, but the film is certainly no worse than that most overrated of films of the New Hollywood, Jerry Maguire (1996). Indeed, Aloha has the exact same plot spine as that Tom Cruise vehicle: Cooper’s Brian Gilcrest, a once great aeronautics expert has lost his way, working as a corrupt military contractor for billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray), but through his reconciliation with his former girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) and Stone’s Captain Allison Ng, Gilcrest experiences a transcendent redemption, both as an American patriot and as a human being.
While many of the attacks on the film have centered on the casting of the hyper-white Stone as a Hawaiian, I am more interested a different aspect of identity politics, the film’s depiction of masculinity. Beyond Gilcrest learning the standard Crowe lesson, that being an outwardly successful man but a jerk on the inside is unfulfilling, the film is unexpectedly interested in the nuances of the new masculinity. In a remarkable transformation of an important scene from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), Gilcrest attempts to reconcile his former girlfriend with her presently estranged husband. Tracy (Rachel McAdams) laments that her military husband, Woody (John Krasinski) never talks to her. Gilcrest explains to her that Woody says quite a lot, just not with words. He explains that when he first met Woody, they shared many non-verbal conversations via body language alone.
Toward the end of the film, after Woody has left Tracy because she demanded that he speak to her about his feelings, Gilcrest and Woody share an exchange of glances and hugs, which Crowe subtitles, so that the audience is aware of what their body communication is saying to each other. Woody puts his hand on Gilcrest’s shoulder with a forlorn look on his face. The subtitle translates, “I know you’re Gracie’s father,” referring to Tracy’s eldest daughter, who she has passed off as Woody’s for fifteen years. Gilcrest does not verbally react, but instead puts his hand on Woody’s shoulder. They gently bob their heads. The film tells us this means Gilcrest has communicated, “I’m glad you know.” Woody hugs his former rival. He rolls his eyes, expressing: “Yes, this is awkward.” The extended embrace speaks volumes: “And yes, I want my family back,” he hugs to Gilcrest. They separate. Gilcrest looks into Woody’s eyes: “It was always your family, Woody.” Gilcrest nods upward to the girls’ bedrooms: “They’re all crazy in love with you.” Gilcrest laughs, but Woody has one final concern. He scowls: “Did you sleep with my wife?” When Gilcrest explains that he slept with Capt. Ng instead, the two men share another heartfelt hug and the film resumes its spoken dialogue.
This scene re-enacts a moment from the beginning of Annie Hall, when Annie (Diane Keaton) and Alvy (Woody Allen) have just met. Standing awkwardly on the balcony outside Annie’s apartment, the two attempt flirty small talk. We hear pretentious discussions about art and aesthetics, while the subtitles tell us what the two characters are really thinking. Alvy asks Annie about her photography. She replies, “Yeah, I dabble.” The subtitle expresses her low self-confidence, “Listen to me. What a jerk.” Alvy tries to compliment her: “They have a quality… You need a set of aesthetic guidelines to put it in social context.” The film translates his pretentious babbling into the bawdy truth about men: “I wonder what she looks like naked.” By this point, Alvy’s confidence is equally obliterated. He thinks, “Christ, I sound like FM radio. Relax.”
Through startling scenes like this, Annie Hall studies sociologically the foibles of men and women. In the film’s best joke, split-screen psychiatrists ask Annie and Alvy how their sex life is. Annie says it’s awful, that they have sex all of the time, three times a week. Alvy responds similarly, that it’s awful, that they never have sex, just three times a week! While Aloha is a romantic comedy in the tradition of Annie Hall, featuring a love triangle between Tracy, Allison, and Gilcrest, the subtitles are concerned with masculinity alone, with the communication between Gilcrest and Woody. Aloha demonstrates that some progress has been made in American gender relations in the past forty years. In the 1970s, in the midst of the women’s liberation movement, Annie Hall falsely assumed that men and women shared the blame equally. Aloha unearths the fact that the equation is not balanced: if we are to fix the wounds that patriarchy wreaks, we need to understand how and why men do, or do not communicate.