Archive for the ‘Aviator’ Category

214 – The Aviator

July 6, 2005

Martin Scorcese’s lengthy homage to Howard Hughes is alternately gripping and aloof and unfortunately is forced to rely far too much on the dubious acting talents of its lead, Leonardo DiCaprio. As Hughes, the perpetually cherubic DiCaprio simply doesn’t have enough panache for the role, and the sometimes-garish makeup that’s intended to show Hughes’s aging merely accentuates DiCaprio’s anachronistic performance.

The movie spans a few decades in Hughes’s; heyday, from the 1920s to the 1940s, from his beginnings as producer/director of Hell’s Angels to his appearance before a Senate investigatorial committe. Hughes fights with everyone – Hollywood censors, the starlets he dated, his employees, the U.S. government, and rival airline tycoons, sometimes to the benefit of Hughes’s myriad business interests, and more often to their debit. The film largely deals with Hughes’s involvement in films and in the airline business, choosing to gloss over or ignore entirely his casinos in Las Vegas and the years leading up to his death in 1976.

At the crux of things, though, are Hughes the Film Producer and Hughes the Aviation Pioneer. From his long-delayed Hell’s Angels – which made him a national star – to his mammary-obsessed The Outlaw, The Aviator shows how single-minded Hughes was in his relentless pursuit of the Perfect Movie. Because he was independently wealthy and could lean on his own funds to keep production moving, Hughes worked outside the traditional Hollywood studio system, shaping Hollywood to fit his own ideas and methods. Not everything worked – and not every idea was well received – but Hughes remained a man unwilling to compromise his principles; some might call this “stubbornness.”

Juxtaposed with Hughes’s film travails is his constant drive to improve aviation, from the purchase of what would become TWA to the innovative behemoth Spruce Goose, which unfortunately flew a distance of one mile exactly one time. Hughes is shown as a notorious perfectionist, personally inspecting each new aircraft to see that it met his (unspecified) standards.

At 170 minutes long, The Aviator manages to cram in many useful and interesting tidbits about Hughes’s life and times, and even though certain aspects of his personality were omitted (such as his alleged aversion to African Americans), one doesn’t get the sense that something’s missing. This is a credit to the screenwriter, John Logan, although the runtime didn’t hurt.

As is usually the case with DiCaprio movies, the biggest liability in the movie was Leonard DiCaprio himself. As Hughes gets older in the movie, poor Leo looks exactly the same – and worse, acts exactly the same. Even when he’s not laden with makeup, DiCaprio looks like he’s about 12 years old and facing the real world for the first time. In The Aviator, he has the gravitas of an empty suit, never appearing to be more than, perhaps, the son of Howard Hughes. DiCaprio isn’t terrible in the movie, he’s just not terribly believable.

His supporting cast is pretty good, though, especially John C. Reilly as his number-two guy and all-around abuse receiver, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner, and Alec Baldwin as Juan Trippe, the head of Hughes’s rival in air, Pan Am. When you have strong professional performances like the work these people turned in, the movie can suffer an underwhelming lead. Unfortunately, one of the key supporting roles wasn’t quite as fulfilling as it should have been – that of Katharine Hepburn, played quirkily by Cate Blanchett. Blanchett adopted Hepburn’s idiosyncrasies and personality tics as well as her odd, off-putting stuttering vocal delivery. Now, I’m not saying the real Katharine Hepburn wasn’t exactly as Blanchett portrayed her, but her mannerisms were so over the top that they were distracting and annoying. Blanchett won an Oscar for her performance; I believe a Razzie would have been more suitable.

The movie’s not much more than an interesting glimpse at a long-dead icon until it reaches the Senate hearings chaired by Senator Brewster (Alan Alda, who also garnered an Oscar nomination). Here especially, Hughes’s strength really shows through, although a present-day viewer might wonder how much of the hearings proceeded exactly as depicted in this movie. Alda, by the way, is fine – although I kept seeing those usual Alda mannerisms, which made me think of Hawkeye Pierce instead of a bad-guy politico.

Overall, The Aviator isn’t quite the epic it wanted to be, and although it’s well paced and benefits from fine supporting performances, it does suffer from an unworthy lead performance.

The Aviator: **1/2

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