Quick Answer: Crowe is an auteur with a recognizable style that has been consistent through his successful films (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) and unsuccessful films (We Bought a Zoo, Aloha) alike. But Crowe's steadfast commitment to his unchanging vision amidst changing times means that he has failed to stay relevant to modern audiences. Crowe presents his version of the American spirit, channeled through sensitive, emotional men who impulsively disregard real-world responsibilities to follow their hearts. A romantic interest in a Cameron Crowe movie is, at worst, a manic pixie dream girl or, at best, a source of positive affirmation. As is clear from the career of Cameron Crowe, an auteur must be flexible enough to evolve if he doesn’t want his films to be perceived as static recreations of earlier work.
A former Rolling Stone journalist, Cameron Crowe is equal parts optimism and rock and roll, viewing the world through a nostalgic lens of his own making. The director first gained acclaim in for adapting his own book as the screenwriter of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), a success followed by a directing career that would earn its highest critical acclaim for Jerry Maguire (1996) and Almost Famous (2000). Jerry Maguire was nominated for a Best Picture Acadey Award, and Almost Famous appeared on several retrospective best of the decade lists in 2009 (#16 on the AV Club’s list and #3 on Paste Magazine’s list).
Crowe has not had that kind of success since. Elizabethtown (2005) scored 28% on Rotten Tomatoes, and We Bought a Zoo (2011) scored 66%, although most critics attribute that minor success to the film’s star Matt Damon (the site’s critical consensus tells us: “We Bought a Zoo is a transparently cloying effort by director Cameron Crowe, but Matt Damon makes for a sympathetic central character”). Crowe’s latest film, Aloha (2015), not only scored a low 19% on the Rotten Tomato meter but was also criticized for the whitewashing of an Asian character played by Emma Stone.
Almost Famous (2000)
If there’s anything worth celebrating about even these recent failures, it’s that, throughout all these movies, Crowe is an auteur with a recognizable style that has been consistent through his successful and unsuccessful films alike. But Crowe's steadfast commitment to his unchanging vision amidst changing times means that he has failed to stay relevant to modern audiences.
Akin to Norman Rockwell, Crowe aims to present his own version of the American spirit, channeled through sensitive, emotionally transparent men who impulsively disregard real-world responsibilities to follow their hearts. The titular protagonist of Jerry Maguire loses his job after writing on his reservations about the ethics of his sports agency in a company-wide memo, while the young journalist in Almost Famous leaves school (temporarily at least) to complete an article assignment. When his characters don’t quit their responsibilities, it's a given that work is a drag that's bringing them down. In Elizabethtown, Orlando Bloom's job pressures nearly lead him to attempt suicide.
Crowe's movie worlds exist to provide moral fables, so the stories require a strong dichotomy between right and wrong. “Right” is following your heart, while “wrong” is being influenced by "the man" (there’s that rock mentality) and doing what "he" wants you to do. Another possible remnant of Crowe’s rock background is his habit of highlighting certain phrases and repeating them. Catch phrases have included Jerry Maguire’s "Show me the money" and "Help me help you," Vanilla Sky (2001)’s "Every passing minute is a chance to turn it all around," and We Bought a Zoo’s "All it takes is twenty seconds of courage."
In keeping with the rock 'n' roll me vs. the man mentality, Cameron Crowe's villains are often painfully flat non-entities who exist solely for the hero to rebel against, from the impersonal sports management company in Jerry Maguire to the company that Tom Cruise inherits from his dad (the ultimate "man") that he detests for some insignificant reason in Vanilla Sky to the three-minute cameo by Alec Baldwin in Elizabethtown.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
The most poignant interpersonal conflict in a typical Cameron Crowe film is between the protagonist and his parent, whether it's the mom in Almost Famous (Frances McDormand), the late dad in Vanilla Sky or the other late father in Elizabethtown (who at least has a presence through his ashes).
A romantic interest in a Cameron Crowe movie is, at worst, a manic pixie dream girl or, at best, no more than a source of positive affirmation. This is not meant as a negative critique (although a separate discussion can be had about the trope of the manic pixie dream girl) but rather an acknowledgement that Cameron Crowe’s romantic ladies are usually not the drivers of conflict and therefore not a part of the narrative solution. Even in a film like We Bought a Zoo, where the main romantic interest has passed, her presence (or, to be more exact, her absence) is simply a reminder to be one’s best version of oneself.
Whether viewers enjoy these standard tropes of Cameron Crowe’s films is a matter of taste, but what’s important to note is that these tropes have become increasingly static even as the films explore different settings. In We Bought a Zoo, the talented Thomas Haden Church is stuck in the role of the older brother who opposes Damon’s buying a zoo for little reason beyond the fact that he's the stock antagonist. The character’s loose reasoning is that he wants to get his brother back in the dating scene and thinks that should guide his career decisions. (There's a weird "Do you like people or animals more?" motif running through film's conversations, as if the two are mutually exclusive, and zookeepers are all lonely hermits.) The opposition is forced, relying more on characterization tropes than realistic motivation.
We Bought a Zoo (2011)
Similarly, Damon quits his job in a scene that heavily mirrors Jerry Maguire, but it lacks emotional impact because it is presented as a morally important decision, despite the fact that it lacks the high stakes of the Maguire scene. The shoddy reason given for the resignation is that Damon is going to be moved to the world of Internet writing instead of print. If this were a matter of principles, he would continue to write. Instead, the character inexplicably buys a zoo.
With Aloha, Crowe had the misfortune of releasing his film in an era wherein critics are more loudly policing for diversity and political correctness. However, even if he had made a more appropriate casting choice, the reuse of the same old tropes catches up to him. In this film, Crowe’s insistence on his Capraesque optimistic vision of the world removes the plot from reality to the point of incoherence. The Chicago Reader wrote, “Crowe wants to tell us that the sky is magical, Hawaii is magical, and love is magical, but the movie feels like something that's been sliced and diced, with plot-pertinent bits of film left on the cutting-room floor.”
Although they may now grate, the soliloquies and heart-felt sentiments of Aloha were the elements of a Cameron Crowe film that originally made Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous so popular. Aloha and Crowe’s earlier films all have the same signature styling elements of the same auteur. The lesson to be learned from Crowe’s later negative reviews is that, at least in the eyes of critics, an auteur can’t simply be distinctive. As is clear from the career of Cameron Crowe, an auteur, while preserving his identity, also must be flexible enough to adapt to each story and evolve as an artist, if he doesn’t want his films to be perceived as static recreations of his earlier work.