“I love him. I love him for the man he wants to be. And I love him for the man he almost is.” —Renée Zellweger, Jerry Maguire
Way back in 2000, when Cameron Crowe was doing press for Almost Famous, I asked him what defines “the Cameron Crowe hero.” His response:
“The battered idealist. It’s just my favorite character. I write it no matter what I do. It sort of comes from my upbringing. My mom would always say, “Be positive, be positive. It’s rough out there, but don’t succumb. Don’t succumb to the cynicism in the world.” To me, a hero is somebody who’s able to accept the environment of the world, deal with the stuff that’s thrown in their path—or, in Fast Times [At Ridgemont High], the coffee that’s thrown in their face—and somehow keep their heart.”
Fifteen years later, with Crowe’s Aloha poised to flop over the weekend, the director himself has become a battered idealist, trying to push his sincere, open-hearted vision through a studio that lacks confidence in him and a consensus among critics (me included) that he’s made his worst movie. Based on the quote above, his instincts as a filmmaker would be to stay positive and not succumb to the cynicism of the world—even though his films, with their weakness for catchphrases and big, crowd-pleasing gestures, could be mistaken for cynical in their worst moments. And bum moments have been popping up more frequently in Crowe’s work lately, from the excesses of Elizabethtown, which turns a third-act road adventure into an endless journey through his iPod, to the bland platitudes of We Bought A Zoo, an oft-touching (and underrated) family film that pushes his earnestness to the limit, to the nonsensical plotting of Aloha, which pivots on an act of private-sector nefariousness that wouldn’t be plausible for a Bond villain.
To a certain extent, Crowe is right to dig in his heels. Sincerity is the guiding force in his movies, and an increasingly rare presence in mainstream cinema. Just the title alone for We Bought A Zoo got the Internet meme machine up and running, but Crowe’s emotional investment in a family working through their grief by taking on a new adventure is unquestionably real—and recalls the superior Carroll Ballard film Fly Away Home. Contrast that with the family-first bullshit shoveled by meathead blockbusters like Furious 7 and the upcoming Entourage, and Crowe’s insistence on treating his characters with true generosity and love is held in sharp relief. His films are fundamentally about the pursuit of happiness, and without the abiding optimism that goodness is rewarded and happiness is achievable, Cameron Crowe would not be Cameron Crowe, and Hollywood would be poorer without him.
But Crowe’s unwillingness to rethink his “battered idealist” character is stubbornness of a more self-destructive kind. The problems with Aloha don’t fall entirely on mercenary military contractor Brian Gilcrest (played by Bradley Cooper), whose war-weary cynicism and hidden reserves of feeling are cast from the mold of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. The film is abysmally plotted and paced, particularly in the first and final third, and contrives an ending that’s both ludicrous and tidy. But Gilcrest is the latest example of a Crowe hero who’s all but interchangeable with Crowe heroes past, and the writer-director’s unwillingness to update him for the times or change the formula that carries him to greatness is doing serious damage to his work.
Let’s go all the way back to Crowe’s directorial debut, Say Anything…, when his idealist was too young to get much of a battering. When Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack), the lovable slacker who wins the unlikely affections of class valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye), gets asked what he wants to do for a living, his response is a memorable jumble: “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.” Lloyd doesn’t have to think of the future—pointedly refuses to, in fact—beyond spending the summer with a girl he adores. He’s at an age when such radical idealism is possible, because he hasn’t yet entered the real world, and when Diane’s father (John Mahoney) is arrested for bilking the residents of his retirement home, we can see the terrible compromises that can go along with being an adult. Crowe gets the luxury of ending the movie before Lloyd is truly tested; we’re left with only a hint of uncertainty.
When Cusack appeared 10 years later in Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity, it wasn’t hard to imagine his Rob Gordon as a grown-up Lloyd Dobler, beaten down by failed relationships, a struggling record-store business, and a more pronounced uncertainty about the future. But while Crowe could certainly handle the soundtrack for High Fidelity—and the star, and some of the humor, too—he’d be incapable of making it, because the complexities of being an adult continue to elude him. Rob doesn’t succumb to cynicism at the end of High Fidelity, but he does learn that idealism isn’t always the best way forward—that compromise is necessary for a healthy relationship (shitty music included), that the fourth or fifth choice for a career can be great, and that the pursuit of happiness is ongoing and occasionally elusive. The thirtysomething Lloyd Dobler has to sell and buy things, maybe process them if necessary. That’s the way of the world.
Yet Crowe has continued to advance the myth that happy endings are possible in Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, Elizabethtown, We Bought A Zoo, and Aloha. When Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) writes his starry-eyed manifesto, gets fired by a large sports agency, and strikes out on his own, his journey is about living up to the ideals of his client-first manifesto—and becoming a better person in the process. And that leaves Dorothy Boyd (Zellweger), the single mother who joins his quixotic mission, to wait around until Jerry becomes the man he wants to be, and almost is. His lone client, a temperamental wide receiver played by Cuba Gooding Jr., calls it “the kwan,” a full package of “love, respect, community… and dollars, too” that stands as the ultimate goal, an achievement beyond the cold percentages and deal-making that usually define the relationship between an agent and an athlete. But touching as Jerry Maguire is, Crowe sets up the entire narrative as a mechanism through which one guy’s kwan is achieved, and it’s everyone else’s job to help make that happen. And once it happens, presumably inertia takes over: A happy object in motion tends to stay in motion.
But where does that leave the women in Cameron Crowe movies? Beyond delivering the hero to the place he wants to be—to the place their perfect selves already are, in most cases—Crowe has never been able to imagine their destinies as being independent of his men, or even capable of supporting a true partnership. After Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) ushers teenage Crowe surrogate William Miller (Patrick Fugit) into adulthood in Almost Famous, she practically disappears into fairy dust. The women who stick around—Dorothy Boyd, Kirsten Dunst’s flight attendant in Elizabethtown, Scarlett Johansson’s zookeeper in We Bought A Zoo, Emma Stone’s fighter pilot in Aloha—do so because they’ve succeeded in their primary mission to make the hero as great as he wants to be. The shame of it is that Crowe plainly loves women, and has written some memorable roles for them, but he seems utterly incapable of making their wants and needs part of the narrative calculus. At best, his women get to look with pride and awe at the more complete men they’ve been instrumental in creating.
The older Crowe gets, and the more the world changes, the more exposed the flaws in his formula become. Aloha is his worst film by orders of magnitude, and Cooper and Stone his least convincing pair, because his battered idealism is obscured by confusion in the plotting, and her unsullied idealism seems completely absurd for someone with a military career. Crowe throws Gilcrest into both a complicated love triangle and a dubious collaboration between the public and private sector, then goes to astounding lengths to tie up every loose end and bring him to the very same place he brings all his protagonists. And there again stands the bright young woman in his life, grinning at the accomplishment.
To a degree, Crowe comes by his Hollywood endings honestly. From his time as a precocious Rolling Stone journalist, he’s never been able to shake a reputation for working too much in the main, of being more booster than critic. Part of the appeal of Crowe’s movies is that he wants his characters to achieve their best, happiest selves, and that certainly doesn’t conflict with a film industry that’s perpetually angling for that conclusion. But the best battered-idealist characters don’t necessarily shed the adjective in the end; the Bogart of Casablanca sacrifices himself and accepts a less-perfect fate, and the film is more romantic and egalitarian because of it. Failure is part of being an adult—and “fiascoes,” too, per Elizabethtown—but Crowe has kept the Lloyd Dobler fantasy alive into his late 50s, trusting that his unwillingness to “succumb to cynicism” will eventually pay off. In that, he’s writing his own false narrative.