Monday, January 31, 2005

Are We There Yet? Di Caprio Soars as "Aviator," But Prepare for a Looooong Flight

Note: My review of "In Good Company" is now up, under the entry for January 24. Check it out!


directed by ol' Marty
starring Leonardo di Caprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John Reilly, etc.

Leo’s terrific,
Cate channels Kate.
Kate’s sexy but no Ava,
And oh, the hour’s late...

Seriously, folks, doggerel aside, I’m of two minds on this movie. For a prestige picture, it’s quite well done—looks great, and features some great acting, principally by di Caprio, whom I can almost forgive now for “Titanic.” Almost.

The problem is “The Aviator” is, in its own way, nearly as bloated as the benighted boat-epic that swelled Jim Cameron’s head to the size of Mars. (Let’s hope a win won’t do the same to dear old Scorsese, though I rather doubt it will.) Certainly it could have used a much more ruthless overhaul in the cutting room than it got—as it is, I can’t believe it’s up for a Best Editing Oscar. I may have the attention span of my generation—though I never watched MTV growing up, thank you very much—but I still don’t count it a good sign when I check my watch and realize, with some dismay, that there are over two hours to go. I’ve seen and loved many sprawling old-Hollywood movies, but this isn’t really one of them.

A deeper, though related, problem, is the “who cares” factor, which plagues this biopic much more than the others dominating this year’s Oscars field. It may be a generational problem again, in that Howard Hughes simply doesn’t hold the kind of lurid fascination for us that he did for, say, my parents. But a more tightly edited, sharply paced film might have crystallized why we of the 21st century are supposed to care about one man’s struggle with—well, with what, exactly? His mental disorder? His industrial rivals? His own ambitions? Broadly construed, I suppose “The Aviator” is more or less about the pull between Hughes’ lust for life and his gradual descent into madness. But it’s so loosely structured, it seems like pieces of several different films strung together as a Life by a few recurring motifs. (One could say the same for “Ray,” but “Ray” was held together by the music, which delivered a resounding and ever-present answer to the “who cares?” question.)

We learn, in dogged succession, that Hughes: had serious mommy-issues, which were almost certainly directly related to his lifelong obsessions with cleanliness, disease, and breasts full of milk (not much psychological insight otherwise into Hughes’ OCD); was fabulously wealthy; financed obscenely expensive movies; romanced famous actresses as well as nameless starlets and cigarette girls; and, oh yes, liked to fly. Against all odds, he broke flying records, broke his own body trying to break more; and broke Pan Am’s monopoly on transatlantic flights, despite vigorous and thoroughly underhanded opposition by Pan Am president Juan Tripp (well played by Alec Baldwin) and the U.S. Senator in his pocket (Alan Alda, good but not that good, Oscar voters!).

The showdown with the latter takes up the last third or so of the movie, which, not coincidentally, is the most riveting part—not so much on its own merits (we’ve all seen heroic grandstanding at Senate hearings before), but rather in the context of Hughes brief, self-willed rally against the mental meltdown that was rapidly engulfing him. Scorsese wisely ends the movie on the cusp between present triumph and future tragedy, and di Caprio really impresses as a figure teetering precariously between vision, hubris, and pathos.

It helps, of course, that he’s ably supported by Baldwin, Alda, Cate Blanchett, who's alternately brilliant and wackily over-the-top as pants-clad New England-royalty Katherine Hepburn, Kate Beckinsale as the sassy yet unexpectedly maternal Ava Gardner, and the quiet presence of the always-reliable John Reilly as Hughes’ money manager. (Also keep an eye out for blink-and-you’ll-miss appearances by Brent Spiner, one of my favorite typecast actors, and the marvelous craggy face of Willem Dafoe, as well as Ian Holm as Hughes’ wind-tossed, all-purposes scientific consultant.) But this is really di Caprio’s movie to carry on his still-boyish shoulders, and he passes with (ahem, sorry) flying colors. Like the enormous plane Hughes pilots at the end of the movie, he miraculously manages to make this ungainly, oversized vehicle soar.

RATING: ** 1/2


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