One of the problems with The Aviator, Martin Scorsese’s distressingly unconvincing biopic of multi-millionaire wack job Howard Hughes, is that the reliably maverick filmmaker finally seems to have made his peace with the Hollywood machine. Just as last year’s intermittently brilliant Gangs of New York was undermined by Scorsese’s decision to build the whole film around an inconsequential romantic subplot, with this film, Scorsese seems to be convinced — perhaps correctly — that the road to Oscar glory is paved with showboating performances by famous people mimicking other famous people. And so we have the reliably bland Kate Beckinsale pretending to be Ava Gardner, the gawky Gwen Stefani pretending to be Jean Harlow (honey, Jean Harlow had curves), and, most disastrously, the radiant Cate Blanchett doing a pinched and stiff-jawed Katharine Hepburn.
Now, the brilliance of Kate Hepburn was her borderline-ridiculous Connecticut-broad persona — nobody else could act like that and get away with it, and nobody else ever tried. I’m not necessarily dissing Blanchett, who does an interesting and skillful impersonation of Hepburn. But under Scorsese’s direction, it remains just that — an actor’s stunt, not a full-bodied character. Leonardo DiCaprio’s take on Howard Hughes irks me even more, since I have fewer reference points for what Hughes might really have been like. Certainly old photographs that make him look like sort of a man’s man, the kind of guy you’d expect to find skydiving, going on safari, or, I don’t know, wrestling. I like DiCaprio’s performance here on a purely surface level — he gets at the intelligence, ambition and destructive obsessive-compulsiveness that define Scorsese’s idea of Hughes — but it doesn’t touch Hughes’s larger-than-life reputation. And his uncanny boyishness (has this guy aged a day since he made Titanic?) makes it seem like he, too, is play-acting, especially in his scenes with Blanchett’s overpowering Hepburn. When the two of them closed in for a kiss, I felt like I was watching robots making out.
So the first hour or so of The Aviator, with its lavish recreation of old Hollywood’s high glamour and weirdness, comes out as a wash for me, since I couldn’t believe in the relationship at its core. Further, the various star cameos are annoying in that they’ve been tossed in for pure PR value — if there’s some other reason for having “Errol Flynn” (“Hey honey, is that Jude Law?”) show up for, like, 15 seconds and then disappear, I don’t get it. The good stuff is pretty good, including a dynamic aerial sequence staged in three dimensions, with Hughes sitting in a cockpit, shooting film as biplanes roar around him, spinning, swooping and burning, although it is a little depressing to see Scorsese taking the same whiz-bang approach to CGI action favored by any other action director; the movie cries out for more physical weight and less FX animation. Similarly, when certain early scenes take on the appearance of primitive Technicolor processes, it comes across less as a visual shorthand for the film’s chronology and more like a check-this-out experiment in the digital post house.
If The Aviator were just a lark for Scorsese, an excuse to check out the toys the new kids in Hollywood are playing with, I’d be less disappointed in the whole affair. But the film’s seriousness increases as we trudge through the second hour and into the third, and events turn darker and occasionally dangerous. The scene in which Hughes pushes a super-fast test plane too hard and winds up going down with it in a spectacular crash among the homes of Beverly Hills is staged with the kind of impossibly extended visceral impact that defines the work of a master. (The teenaged girl sitting behind me started hyperventilating during the scene and was openly sobbing over its aftermath.) But the nightmarish business about Hughes quarantining himself, naked, in his screening room, growing long beard and fingernails, pissing into milk bottles and, presumably, dreaming of Mommy (who makes a cameo in the film’s very first scene) verges on parody. The proceedings finally perk up a little bit as Hughes gets his shit together long enough to publicly embarrass a weaselly senator (Alan Alda) who’s in bed with Pan-Am founder Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), Hughes’s main competitor in the consumer airliner business — but as courtroom-style drama goes, that scene is still pretty rote stuff.
The obvious point of reference here is Citizen Kane; of course that’s an unfair comparison, but since one of screenwriter John Logan’s first credits was RKO 281, a fictionalized retelling of the making of Kane, I’m guessing it was on his mind as he wrote this one. He also wrote the scripts for Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, and The Last Samurai, films that aren’t exactly known for depth or nuance of character, and The Aviator barely hints at any real feelings about Howard Hughes.
At the age of 30, I bet DiCaprio still gets carded at liquor stores. That’s a problem here. So is the put-on Texas accent, which consistently pegs him as more matinee idol than cowboy. I’m not blaming the movie’s failures on DiCaprio, who is certainly up there doing what he’s paid to do. He’s appealing and engaging, but it’s not enough. There are so many caricatures in The Aviator with so little actual character, and so little to actually care about. The film nails the exhilaration of flight pretty well, pays tribute to the spirit of American industry, and is clearly Scorsese’s valentine to classic Hollywood (though Howard Hughes was a marginal figure, at best, in film history). But it’s the story of a man, and in that it has a certain responsibility to its audience. On the subject of what really made Hughes tick, or what tore him apart from the inside, it’s conspicuously mute. Coming from one of the world’s greatest working filmmakers, it’s a crushing disappointment.