4 reasons Aloha flopped at the box office

Aloha didn’t have audiences at hello. In its opening weekend in theaters, the romantic dramedy written and directed by Jerry Maguire filmmaker Cameron Crowe failed to crack the top five of new movies in wide theatrical release, grossing a lackluster $10 million.

While hardly a ruinous debut for a movie with a relatively modest $40 million price tag, Aloha’s box-office haul is considered a disappointment in light of its prestige pedigree. Hot off the blockbuster success of American Sniper, multiple Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper stars as Brian Gilcrest, a rogue-ish military contractor struggling with early on-set midlife crisis/professional ennui. The character finds himself in a romantic quadrangle with Emma Stone (a plucky Air Force captain assigned to “watchdog” Brian) and Rachel McAdams, the character’s ex-girlfriend, a.k.a. the one he let get away, now married to an uncommunicative pilot played by John Krasinski.

The Hawaii-set movie arrives as the third consecutive under-performer for Crowe—an Academy Award winner for best screenplay for 2000’s Almost Famous—whose previous two features, We Bought a Zoo (2011) and Elizabethtown, failed to achieve mass appeal at the multiplex.

Yet, all the constituent parts of Aloha look so good on paper; how could it all go so wrong? Herewith, a diagnostic of the ailments that precipitated the film’s floppage last weekend:

Studio trepidation: Thanks to the terabytes of digital info dragged into public consciousness by the 2014 computer hack of Aloha’s distributor Sony Pictures, we know then-studio boss Amy Pascal was hailing the movie—once titled Deep Tiki—as a hot mess long before it made its way to theaters.

A kind of internal rot first affixed itself to the film when Reese Witherspoon and Ben Stiller were cast as leads but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. Originally slated for a Christmas 2014 opening, its release was pushed back until May after test screenings raised the red flag of potential disaster.  And in leaked emails, Pascal made clear her displeasure with the film’s characters and specific plot points. “People don’t like people in movies who flirt with married people or married people who flirt,” she wrote. “The satellite makes no sense. The gate makes no sense. I’m never starting a movie again when the script is ridiculous. And we all know it.”  

Accusations of “white-washing”: Sight-unseen, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans lambasted Aloha in a statement last month decrying the film’s meager representation of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. “60% of Hawaii’s population is AAPIs,” said MANAA president Guy Aoki. “Caucasians only make up 30% of the population, but from watching this film, you’d think they made up 90%. This comes in a long line of films (The Descendants, 50 First Dates, Blue Crush, Pearl Harbor) that uses Hawaii for its exotic backdrop but goes out of its way to exclude the very people who live there.”

In point of fact, Aloha features a small but crucial performance by Hawaiian activist Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele playing an islander king intent on standing his ground in the face of encroaching military industrial complex initiative spearheaded by Cooper’s character. And in a Twitter chat, Crowe stated his impetus for the film. “I wanted to dig deeper into the real story of Hawaii,” he said.

But that agenda wasn’t necessarily furthered by his casting Stone as a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian, half-Swedish fighter pilot character named Allison Ng who’s presented as the avatar of Hawaiian-ness in the film. By Friday, the web was awash with think pieces about Aloha’s Asian erasure—including mine—the biggest groundswell of racebending outcry since Jake Gyllenhaal portrayed an ancient Iranian in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

The perceived vote of studio no-confidence: Arousing the suspicions of many industry observers, in Los Angeles, Sony’s all-media screening of Aloha didn’t occur until May 26 with reviews embargoed until the 28th—a day before the movie hit theaters. Received wisdom in Hollywood is, if the movie’s good, studios usually will screen it right, left and center to create pre-release buzz. But film distributors typically use the late-to-screen/hard-to-review gambit to effectively limit bad reviews. 

Critical scorn: Upon its release, however, the movie bowed to a B- Cinemascore with no shortage of disastrous reviews. “Aloha is the new Gigli,” opined Mike McGranaghan in The Aisle Seat, while IndieWire  called the film “shockingly bad.” And as this blog post went online, Aloha’s Rotten Tomatoes ranking stood at an abysmal 18 percent.