Stars Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone and Rachel McAdams shine in messy 'Aloha'

"Aloha" is the strangest movie to date by writer-director Cameron Crowe — yes, even stranger than "Vanilla Sky" — and in some ways, it is also his worst.

Crowe’s films have always been inviting and easy to slip into. Their themes — unrequited crushes, the all-consuming love of music, the desire to achieve one’s maximum potential, the perennial ritual of returning to one’s hometown — are relatable and easy to grasp. The pleasures of "Say Anything" or "Almost Famous" or "Jerry Maguire" start with their opening shots, and the reason those pictures stay with you is a testament to the humaneness with which Crowe views people. Even the films in which he wasn’t always successful, such as the flawed but underrated "Elizabethtown" or the too-on-the-nose "We Bought a Zoo," were never discombobulating. Not everyone may have enjoyed them, but I can’t imagine anyone being baffled by them.

"Aloha" is different, because Crowe waits awhile this time before letting you find your bearings. Some will think he waits too long.

At first, the story of a former military man turned defense contractor named Brian (Bradley Cooper) who falls for an Air Force captain, Allison (Emma Stone), during a trip to Hawaii to oversee the launch of a satellite is befuddling. Who are these people, and why are we following them? Is Brian flirting with Allison, or vice versa? Why is their back-and-forth banter so charmless and stilted? Who, exactly, is the powerful businessman played by Bill Murray? And when Brian goes to have dinner at the home of his former flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams), who is now married to a taciturn pilot (John Krasinski) and is the mother of two, what are we to make of their current relationship? Do they still have feelings for each other? What the hell is going on in this movie?

Those wobbly first 15 minutes could be the result of studio tampering. Or they could be a sign of Crowe struggling — and failing — to launch Aloha in a way that immediately draws us in with curiosity instead of familiarity. Or he could just be doing it on purpose. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t work. The movie is initially off-putting, confusing, even — yes — boring. Compare this with the audacious opening of "Elizabethtown" (a movie a lot of people despised, but not for its hilarious prologue), and you wonder if Aloha’s troubled production history wound up affecting the finished film after all. Here, you ponder, may be Crowe’s first all-out dud.

And then, slowly, the picture starts to come together, even though it remains an oddly disparate contraption. The central premise is too big for the protagonists - the stuff dealing with the rocket launch could have come from a James Bond picture, complete with a greedy, megalomaniacal villain - but the bulk of the picture focuses on all the right things. Aloha opens with the old Columbia Pictures logo instead of the sleeker contemporary one — a sign, perhaps, that the filmmaker is letting the audience know we’re in for an off-kilter love story that doesn’t follow the modern-day template, such as "The Apartment" or "L’Atalante" or even "I Know Where I’m Going!"

I’m not trying to imply "Aloha" is anywhere in their league: To quote "The Breakfast Club," “Not even close, bud.” But you can see what Crowe was going for, and there are moments of such emotional honesty, such as a conversation between two people tempted to follow one path but agreeing, reluctantly, it would be a mistake, that prove he can still turn cliched situations into moments of clear-eyed insight into the infuriating, heartbreaking vagaries of love.

Aloha, which also has to do with weapons of war and the overcrowding of Earth's orbit and a perpetually angry general (Alec Baldwin), is an overstuffed bird. But it's hard to say what should have been cut. Crowe needs that long sequence in which Brian and Allison visit the home of one of the local civic leaders known as “The Chief,” who tells them to keep their eyes open to the miracles that are constantly happening around us but are easy to overlook. Based on the film’s awful, confusing trailers (you can tell distributor Sony Pictures had no idea how to market this movie), Aloha has come under attack by some groups for “white-washing” Hawaiian culture and misappropriating “aloha” for a cutesy title, ignoring the deeper meanings of the word. But when you see the film, you realize Crowe has done none of those things, and not just because the blond, blue-eyed Allison happens to be part Hawaiian and part Chinese (as well as Scandinavian).

Crowe treats Hawaiian culture and customs with the same affection and respect he showed for Southern hospitality in "Elizabethtown." He’s just not afraid to poke fun at it, too, the way he pokes fun at everyone in the movie at some point (the running gag about Krasinski’s inability to verbalize his feelings, or pretty much anything for that matter, pays off in a hilarious yet weirdly touching gag). Yes, "Aloha" is a mess. But messes can be fascinating, and there’s a lot of tenderness and beauty and heartbreak here, too. Crowe draws strong performances from his three leads: Cooper keeps getting better and more commanding with every film, Stone’s astonishing eyes have never been more expressive, and McAdams radiates a motherly warmth and wisdom that I had never seen her attempt before. Her character knows that sometimes, it really is too late for some things to happen, no matter how perfect they once seemed. Much will be written about Aloha's failure at the box office - this one is destined to bomb like a megaton nuclear rocket - and by August, the film will be largely forgotten. This is the kind of movie that is easier to mock than to grapple with on its own terms. But if you connect with Aloha, you’ll be revisiting it often. It’s an imperfect picture littered with flaws, but sometimes those movies can be the most interesting ones. The doors to the "Aloha" cult fan club are officially open. I'll take one ticket, please.

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin.

Writer-director: Cameron Crowe.

A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 105 minutes. Vulgar language. Playing at area theaters.