Sunday, December 19, 2004


Movie Review: The Aviator.

Martin Scorsese's The Aviator is a finely crafted, expertly-polished work of disappointment.

But first, I must say that I *did* enjoy the movie more than I thought I would. Given a lot of the bad press the film has gotten from some critics I trust, I anticipated a much inferior film. The Aviator is very good, but never quite soars, if you'll pardon the pun.

The good, then the bad.

The good? The story of Howard Hughes is naturally interesting. A true "renaissance Man," his mind grasped engineering, business, and Hollywood entertainment all at the same time. Blessed with good looks, Hughes managed to become the consummate playboy: imagine Chuck Yeager, Donald Trump, and Leonardo DiCaprio, all rolled into one.

The performances in The Aviator are all first-rate, especially DiCaprio's. While he still looks barely older than twelve, after a while you begin to forget his lack of resemblance to Hughes, and start watching him as a character. While I've liked his acting before, I've never been truly as impressed as many critics. He shows here that he is the real deal.

Also good is Cate Blanchett, as Katharine Hepburn. Blanchett so badly mangles her first scene as Hepburn (golfing with Hughes)-- beyond an impression towards caricature-- that I was tempted to dismiss her. However, she got better as the movie went along, eventually putting in a fine performance.

As Ava Gardner, Kate Beckinsale doesn't have a big role. On the other hand, I will go on the record and state that, unequivocally, she is the Most Beautiful Woman Alive. You watch the film wondering if Scorsese airbrushed her skin into flawlessness in ever frame. Seriously, she's her own special effect.

Go ahead. . . argue with me.

The bad? All the typical Achille's Heels of the biopic genre. Too long. Too disjointed-- orphaned scenes instead of a narrative vector. Worst of all, The Aviator doesn't really tell us much about what motivated Howard Hughes, what drove him to exceptionalism in everything he did.

Sure, we learn how much Hughes loves flying, but why? Same with business. From the meager scraps the film provides, it's apparent that he's got an anti-elitist streak in him (particularly demonstrated in a very funny scene where Hughes meets the wealthy artistic socialist Hepburn family for dinner). He's also fighting, and failing, to control his creeping insanity. But still, while we see the effects-- Hughes' desire to always be better than anyone else, to defy authority and conventional wisdom-- we don't ever see speculation as to the cause of those effects.

As for Howard Hughes' descent into a wonderful blend of paranoia and obsessive/compulsive disorder, The Aviator and DiCaprio manage to effectively convey Hughes' slow collapse. You can't help but feel pity for Hughes, knowing that someone with so much potential could be felled by mental illness.

The signature style of a Martin Scorsese film was absent; nothing in the film really felt uniquely his. The Aviator is very competently done, even beautiful in parts (accented by an excellent orchestral score by Howard Shore), but it felt like it could have been directed by anybody. It doesn't help that the most striking visual elements of the film-- the flying sequences-- were all done in CGI. You can understand the technical reasons for doing so, but as pretty as they are to look at, they're obvious unreality harms the realism of the film.

Even so, given the bland, workman direction, I wondered what could have been done with the film if, say, Steven Spielberg had helmed it. I can only imagine the flying sequences would have been truly spectacular in that event.

Anyways, if it sounds like I'm panning the film, I'm not. It's a good movie, and it's worth seeing if it interests you. It's just that, given the source material, the pedigree and the hype, The Aviator can't help but disappoint.

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