MOVIES: 'The Aviator'
Here's a video review, plus if you want more scribblings, here's a link to a column I wrote for the paper this week. Cheers!
The story of Howard Hughes is one of a dizzying rise, and a painful, far longer fall. It’s tailor-made for the movies — orphaned boy inherits his father’s tool business, parlays that into global fame, power and even a career as a Hollywood director — until he’s brought down by crippling psychological problems that end with him dying a withered recluse.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hughes roughly from age 20 to 45, and does a fantastic job showing his ever-turning mind, attention to detail and steely self-confidence. The movie kicks off with Hughes filming “Hell’s Angels,” a 1930 airplane war picture that was one of the biggest and most elaborate movies ever filmed.
From there, Hughes gets into airplanes as a business, developing faster and more advanced planes with a painstaking eye. Hughes also squires some of Hollywood’s most gorgeous women about, including soulmate Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), and comes into conflict with the U.S. government during the McCarthyism era.
Yet all the while, he battled obsessive-compulsive disorder. The movie sticks to the sunnier side of Hughes’ life, ending before he basically became a germ-phobic prisoner living in Las Vegas hotels. But the seeds of Hughes’s mental downfall are there even in his youth, shown in some of “The Aviator’s” most haunting sequences.
DiCaprio is remarkably solid and believable as Hughes. The main problem is that as Hughes ages, DiCaprio with his baby face looks less and less appropriate. That aside, it’s a powerful, layered turn from this former teen idol.
Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning performance as Katharine Hepburn throws you off-balance at first — she’s so broad and tackles Hepburn’s distinctive accent so aggressively that it feels like a parody. Yet she warms to it quickly, showing us the woman behind Hepburn’s famed bravado. Although she looks little like Hepburn, Blanchett really captures her essence. Her scenes with DiCaprio have the most heart of any in “The Aviator.”
“The Aviator” doesn’t quite rank with the heights of director Martin Scorsese’s best work, the more personal films like “Goodfellas” or “Taxi Driver.” Hughes is DiCaprio’s obsession, and to some extent Scorsese is the hired hand as director. His unique imprint is missing.
Certain scenes of “The Aviator,” such as an apocalyptic airplane crash, will scorch on your memory, but the story ultimately bogs down a bit in aviation politics and finds it hard to maintain its uplifting tone in the face of Hughes’ sorry real-life end (which isn’t directly referred to). It’s sparkling, gorgeously filmed history, but ultimately, at three hours, a little overlong and underfocused.
Considering the damaged nature of its subject, “The Aviator” does a good job giving wings to his ultimately sad tale of a man who flew too high, too fast.
*** of four