ALOHA opened this past weekend to bad box office and even worse reviews, and you could see this coming for a number of reasons, not all of which had to do with the Sony email hack. Cameron Crowe has been in a rut for a while, which is unfortunate as he used to be a vital artist. I fell in love with Crowe's first film SAY ANYTHING when it initally hit home video and enjoyed his follow-ups for the most part until I had a breakthrough with ALMOST FAMOUS. I realized that it's kind of a bullshit movie, and then later hearing the commentary for SAY ANYTHING, it became obvious why I have never loved another Crowe film as much as his first film.
As for ALMOST FAMOUS, there's nothing all that wrong with an enjoyably full of shit movie if it's made well and is inoffensive (like GOOD WILL HUNTING, which requires as much suspension of disbelief as any superhero movie), but ALMOST FAMOUS is supposedly autobiographical. And that means that either Crowe never saw too much of the dark side of Rock and Roll, or he didn't want to show it. Both are possible (he was 13 when he started writing for magazines), and it's why the moments when the film gets a little darker, like when Billy Crudup shows that he's capable of violence, are where the film is at its most interesting. But when Crowe's/William Miller's first sexual encounter with a number of groupies is portrayed through hankerchief juggling... an act that if the character is 15 could be considered statutory rape (though likely gets the SOUTH PARK/THAT'S MY BOY "Nice" reaction from most), and if it was his first time... especially if it was three groupies it would be weird and awkward and likely quick. And you could argue that he tries to get that across in that William is more in love with Penny Lane, who seemingly gives permission to him to have sex but also maybe feels bad about it as well, but it also reveals the truth about Crowe: he's a nice guy. And it seems the best/worst thing to happen to him was John Cusack.
On the commentary track for SAY ANYTHING, Crowe talks about his initial conception of Lloyd Dobbler, which was based on someone that Crowe knew. He was a Southern gentleman who had the positivity of a motivational speaker. That was his concept for Lloyd, someone who could not be deterred, whose unerring sense of rightness would guide him to the life he wanted. And what Cusack brought to the part was the dark undercurrent. Cusack's Lloyd knew pain all too well and his positivity was a choice made in face of how much things sucked. When Lloyd is driving around in the rain, one doesn't get the sense that this is the first time his heart has been broken, it's that he can't understand what he did wrong (spoiler: he did nothing wrong). SAY ANYTHING seems grounded in a reality that Crowe knew, but the reason why the film works is because of Cusack, unquestionably. And for better or worse, Diane Court is one of Crowe's most rounded female characters.
SINGLES came out at an interesting moment, and it's mixture of romantic comedy and grunge documentary that's fascinating even if it's more charming than great. And then came JERRY MAGUIRE. I still like the film, though I haven't watched in a while, but what makes it interesting is how much Crowe actively paints himself into corners. The main character is a sports agent, seemingly the most detestable person imaginable. The love interests get married before they fall in love, etc. etc. But here, we start to see that Crowe is getting removed from regular people, and that he wants to emulate his success with SAY ANYTHING, though it doesn't comes as organically.
Post-ALMOST FAMOUS, Crowe made a remake for Tom Cruise with VANILLA SKY, which is a bro midlife crisis film that never meant much to me. Then there's his latest trilogy, and I go back to that commentary track. The big problem with these films, with ELIZABETHTOWN, WE BOUGHT A ZOO, and likely ALOHA - which I will eventually watch - is that Crowe likes to graft pain onto his main characters. In ELIZABETHTOWN - which due to the nature of DVD post-production work, is a film I have seen over ten times - it opens with the Orlando Bloom failing big and nearly committing suicide, in ZOO, it's that the protagonist's wife recently died, and in ALOHA, the main character was declared dead and left heavily injured in Afghanistan (though this was more fleshed out in the original script than the finished film).
The problem, especially in ELIZABETHTOWN is that it seems that Crowe only superficially understands darkness, and that's why ALMOST FAMOUS turned out as it did, but he still wants to have that dark energy in his movies. And when you realize that Lloyd Dobbler's character wasn't meant to have that weight, it explains a lot. Would ELIZABETHTOWN be a better movie if the main character wasn't suicidal? It strikes me that part of the problem is miscasting, but that Crowe's initial choice for the role was Ashton Kutcher suggests either that he's at the mercy of the studio system, or that he doesn't understand that pain. Other names that could have played the part are (according to wikipedia) Seann William Scott, Colin Hanks, Chris Evans, and James Franco, so perhaps it is a generational problem. That film doesn't know how to mix pain with joy, the sweet and the sour. It's a hard chemistry problem to crack, perhaps even more so when you first did it accidentally.