Tuesday, December 28, 2004

"The Aviator": A Review

Some thoughts on "The Aviator," the latest masterpiece from Martin Scorsese.

Chronicling about 20 years in the life of business tycoon and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes, "The Aviator" is a big sprawling biopic that, like its subject, has style -- and money -- to burn. This is Hollywood filmmaking at its most sumptuous. Although Scorsese doesn't probe very deeply into the tics that motivated Hughes' manic energy and eventual decay, "The Aviator" achieves greatness on its purely visceral level.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives a career-topping performance in the role of Hughes, and that's coming from someone who went into the theater convinced that the filmmakers had seriously miscast the lead. DiCaprio made me a believer; it is a terrific performance, joyously maniacal -- and subtle when warranted ("The Aviator" implies strongly that Hughes, in addition to suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, was likely bipolar, as well).

In so doing, DiCaprio adds shades of complexity to John Logan's screenplay. "The Aviator" proffers that the real tragedy of Howard Hughes wasn't simply that he was a mad genius crippled by mental illness, but that he was painfully aware of his own cognitive distortions. In that vein, the movie's final image -- I won't say anything more -- is as stark and powerful as Jake LaMotta's dressing-room soliloquy at the close of Scorsese's "Raging Bull."

DiCaprio lends heft to the role, but the biggest star power comes from Scorsese. Although he came to the project late (Michael Mann was initially slated to direct and is still credited as a producer), there is no doubt that this is thoroughly his movie. Here he dazzles with knockout set pieces: the circuslike kineticism surrounding Hughes' making of the 1930 motion picture "Hell's Angels" (the most expensive movie ever made up to that time), lavish nights at the legendary Coconut Grove, electrifying movie premieres at Grauman's Chinese Theater, making his case for Jane Russell 's ample cleavage in the 1943 western, "The Outlaw" and -- perhaps most impressive of all -- a jaw-dropping sequence in which Hughes crashes during a test flight of the XF-11, destroying several Beverly Hills mansions and nearly killing himself in the process. All told, this humble quasi-reviewer (that's me) would call it Scorsese's best work since 1990's "Goodfellas."

Nevertheless, "The Aviator" weathers a noticeable drop in altitude about two-thirds of the way through, when Hughes is dumped by his love interest, Katherine Hepburn (a great performance by Cate Blanchett, who captures the late actress' bluster without lapsing into parody), a heartbreak that, the film suggests, advances his slide into mental illness. Not that the movie is through with Hughes as tinseltown womanizer, though; he then takes up with Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), but that relationship is given only perfunctory treatment and Beckinsale doesn't have to do much more than look great. While the tone does shift some, and it's surely more fun to watch Hughes' high-flying days than the inevitable decline, the change is hardly damaging. It's been a long, long time since I've seen a three-hour film in which I didn't check my watch.

You need a big spoon to scarf up this Spruce Goose-sized spectacle. The star-studded cast includes Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly, Gwen Stefani, Jude Law (on the cusp of winning the Janet Jackson Nipple Overexposed Award), Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm and Danny Huston. All deliver the goods, but Alda is particularly effective as an unctuous, self-righteous slime (not that that's much of a stretch for him or anything ...)

Let me defer to David Denby's review in The New Yorker and Michael Sragow's piece in the Baltimore Sun, both of which are justifiably glowing in their assessment.


At 2:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that the movie was outstanding. Like Chase, I was surprised that I didn't check my watch out of boredom, (I did begin to worry a little about the husband home alone with the toddler). You forgot the breathtaking scene that has Hughes in a plane filming an aerial fight sequence for "Hell's Angels." That cinched it for me. Great movie. Cate Blanchett was phenomenal after the golfing scene which did lapse into parody a bit for me. She pulled it out for the remainder.


Post a Comment

<< Home