Earlier this summer, a Cameron Crowe movie came and went (and we said “Aloha” and “Aloha” to it). Yes, it was panned by critics, but you would think that a movie starring Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, John Krasinski, Bill fucking Murray, and Alec Baldwin -- and helmed by once-beloved writer/director Cameron Crowe -- would attract a decent box office just based on name recognition alone. But no. The movie All-About-Steve-ed it up and took in just $20 million against a budget of $37 million.
Aloha (2015) was likely doomed from the word “Go”, as documented by emails between then-Sony executive Amy Paschal and Cameron Crowe revealed in the Sony hack. But this latest setback for Crowe has led some people on the internet to ask the legitimate question:
What the fuck happened to Cameron Crowe?
The guy wrote-and-directed his way into the hearts of millions with hits like Say Anything (1989), which inspired a generation of angsty young men to stand on girls’ lawns with boomboxes blasting Peter Gabriel songs that they’d previously boned to, and Jerry Maguire (1996), which produced a Best Picture nomination, a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Crowe, and the Best Oscar Acceptance Speech Ever, culminating with Almost Famous (2000), which actually won Crowe his only Oscar (for best Original Screenplay). His acceptance speech was considerably more lame than Cuba Gooding’s.
Things started to go downhill with Vanilla Sky (2001), which received very-mixed-but-mostly-negative reviews. Yet, it was still a hit(ish) at the box office. This downward trend continued with Elizabethtown (2005), which inspired “meh”s from critics, bombed at the box office, and included a character that is (literally) the very definition of a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Crowe poked his head above water with the family-friendly (read: “safe”) We Bought A Zoo (2011), garnering mildly-positive reviews and a modest box office, and then followed it up with an even bigger non-risk with a Pearl Jam documentary, only to sink lower than ever with Aloha.
Suddenly, we find ourselves realizing that a guy that made three great movies in an 11-year span (and, by the way, he wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) so many years ago) hasn’t made more than a so-so movie in fifteen years. And he’s in fact made some straight up bad movies in that time. So….is it time to give up on Cameron Crowe?
This particular question is unfair to Cameron Crowe; he’s not the first filmmaker to have a dry spell. The real question being asked here is this:
After how many duds in a row do you begin to give up on any filmmaker?
However, removing Cameron Crowe’s name from the question doesn’t make it much easier to answer. The short answer remains “it depends.” It depends on how great the past work was, how many great films he/she had previously made, and how bad the current state of affairs is. But one thing that’s important to remember: not every director is as consistent as Scorsese or Spielberg*. Even great directors are spotty.
*Whatever your thoughts on Spielberg’s recent string of overly-sentimental films, nearly everything in his filmography ranges from “pretty good” to “great”, and that’s damn impressive for a 40-year career. Plus, he made Schinder’s List and Jurassic Park in the same God damn year. Let that sink in.
Sidney Lumet directed some of the best movies of all time with 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976). But notice the years between them. Not that he made exclusively duds in the 18 years between 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon (hell, he made Serpico in 1973), but there were certainly patches of his career where he seemed to have lost his touch. Of the eleven movies he made between 1984 and 2006 (longer than Crowe’s current dryspell), only one of them sits higher than a mediocre 6.7 on IMDb (take that for whatever it’s worth) before he found his stride again to end his career strongly with Find Me Guilty (2006) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007).
The late Mike Nichols is in the same boat. His first three movies were Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), The Graduate (1967), and Catch-22 (1970). He made sixteen more movies, but beyond those three, he (arguably) made maybe one good movie per decade -- Silkwood (1983), The Birdcage (1996), and Closer (2004), before finishing his career on a high note with Charlie Wilson’s War (2007).
Could Cameron Crowe be another spotty filmmaker? Is he just following a decade of hits with a decade and a half of non-hits, with more hits to come? Or, alternatively, is he one of those filmmakers that shows flashes of brilliance before completely losing it?
M. Night Shyamalan comes immediately to mind for most people. For me, so does Richard Kelly -- who wrote and directed Donnie Darko (2001), which, judging by the rest of his work, is a great movie that he made completely by accident.
And then there’s Francis Ford Coppola.
He made a few movies in the 1970s you might’ve heard of: The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979). Oh, and he wrote eventual Best Picture winner Patton (1970). He won five Oscars in the span of three years, and oh by the way, he was nominated for five Oscars in one year (he tragically lost Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for The Conversation….to himself for The Godfather Part II).
But, alas, much to the chagrin of Francis Ford Coppola and most of the United States, the 1980s happened.
Since Apocalypse Now, Coppola has directed fifteen movies. With the exception of The Godfather Part III (1990) -- which most people treat like the other Baldwin brothers, i.e. pretend it doesn’t exist -- I bet most people couldn’t name more than a couple of those fifteen. I know he directed the adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1983) - likely trying (and failing) to find a new audience, he turned Gary Oldman into Dracula (1992) or something, and he directed Robin Williams with his kind-of-Tom-Hanks-from-Big disease in the tonally bizarre Jack (1996). Other than that, I was surprised as anyone else to hear he’s directed fifteen since 1979.
What happened to Coppola? Some say he lost his mind in the jungles while making Apocalypse Now (well-documented by Hearts of Darkness); some say he lost his creative spark after so many financial failures; some say he was never the same after his son tragically died in 1986. But unlike Lumet and Nichols, Coppola’s still kickin’. Nowadays, he’s dabbling in “live cinema” at Oklahoma City Community College (no, seriously) and making most of his money from his winery.
For filmmakers (or any artists) who follow up highly-praised work with highly-hated work, it introduces questions about the earlier praises. I think it’s fair to say that Coppola is immune to this; he might never make a great movie again (or maybe he’ll surprise us), but no one is going to use his bad later films to retroactively trash The Godfather. But other filmmakers aren’t so lucky. There’s a great investigation into Kevin Smith’s career on the Escapist’s youtube page, as he is a posterchild for re-examining once-praised work in light of later disappointments (was Clerks (1994) really that great?). Hell, Tim Burton has gone from being hailed as a visionary to being a caricature of his past self (with a few exceptions, I still love Big Fish (2003) and Sweeney Todd (2007)). If Crowe’s career continues on its current trajectory, maybe people will find years-later faults with Jerry Maguire or Almost Famous.
I guess the point of all this is to ask what we can expect from Cameron Crowe going forward. And the non-answer is “We’ve seen what he can do, so we’ll see.” The distinction, though, is that “we’ve seen what he can do” means something completely different in 2015 than it did in 2001.