Worth A Look: 35.5%
Pretty Bad: 6.51%
Total Crap: 7.69%
12 reviews, 97 user ratings
|Aviator, The (2004)
by Jay Seaver
Brief snippet of conversation my brother Matt and I had as "A Martin Scorcese Film" appeared on the screen:
"Well, he was one crazy m-f-er."
"Howard Hughes or Martin Scorcese?"
"Yes."It's worth noting that immediately before this conversation was a scene that pretty much encapsulates everything that the prior two and a half hours plus was saying on its own - Hughes flies a new airplane, but practically before it's landed he's spouting ideas for the next technological leap until his brain locks in some sort of OCD/Tourette's fugue state, and his trusted assistant hides him away. See, Hughes was brilliant, but mentally ill, get it?
"The emperor has no clothes for no apparent reason."
Scorcese hammers this point home with style, a lot of style. Though the title of the movie refers to the mark Hughes made on the world of aviation, Scorcese often seems to see this as a way to recreate old Hollywood. The color and pageantry invested in the premiere of Hughes's movie Hell's Angels is incredible, and the look of The Aviator reflects how movies recorded its time period - washed-out, nearly black-and-white colors at the very beginning, a bright Technicolor palette which makes green peas look blue later on, a more sedate color scheme by the end. Similarly, when Katharine Hepburn appears, she reminds the audience not so much of a real person but a Katharine Hepburn character.
Hepburn is played by Cate Blanchett, and if her instructions were not to play Hepburn but instead to imitate Hepburn playing Hepburn, well, spot-on. It's kind of distancing - even though I found it an amusing conceit, I was constantly aware of an actress playing a role; my brother, who has never seen a Kate Hepburn movie, just found it annoying. Other current "name" actors play screen idols of years past, too, and I suspect Scorcese used it as a kind of shorthand; some audience members won't know who Ava Gardner, Jean Harlow, or Errol Flynn are, but they may recognize Kate Beckinsale, Gwen Stefani, and Jude Law, and perhaps think that Flynn is that era's Jude Law. It's kind of cute for Stefani and Law; Beckinsale, however, is in what should be a meatier role, requiring more than "Ava Gardner is like Kate Beckinsale", but not getting it.
This technique also backfires when recognizable actors appear in non-movie star roles. Sure, Alec Baldwin is good as Pan Am boss Juan Trippe, who probably would have been an oily Alec Baldwin villain even if another actor got the part. Alan Alda (as a senator in Trippe's pocket) and John C. Reilly (as the business mind of Hughes Aircraft) are good despite their familiarity, which actually works in Reilly's favor. But what's the point of Ian Holm doing a goofy accent as a meteorologist or Willem Dafoe in a cameo as a tabloid reporter? It simply serves to emphasize the "movie" aspect of this movie about Howard Hughes's life over "Howard Hughes's life". There's a good chance that that's what Scorcese was going for, but, honestly, isn't this kind of stunt casting the equivalent of putting CGI-enhanced visuals over the story in a weak popcorn movie?
And, make no mistake, they're covering for a weak story. John Logan's screenplay seems to be a collection of incidents and clichés rather than a coherent narrative. Hughes sarcastically answering Senator Brewster's questions and turning the tables on him seems like classic Hollywood hackery. A thread about Hughes's 15-year-old assistant or girlfriend or something seems to be there because she figures into an incident in Hughes's life that's too juicy not to include (her ramming her car into one carrying Hughes and Gardner), but what's the guy doing with a 15-year-old assistant or mistress or whatever? You'll have to hit the library to get any idea of where that comes from. Another, about Hughes fighting with the MPAA's precursor over the prominence of Jane Russell's breasts in The Outlaw seems to be in the movie because it's something today's filmmakers would like to do.
Speaking of The Outlaw, it seems like it took a decade or so to make, in part because the passage of time is not well-marked. While the opening act does underscore how long it took to make Hell's Angels, the timeline gets murky after that. World War II comes and goes almost without comment; characters briefly reappear in odd contexts well after the movie seems finished with them. None of the characters except Hughes seem to age, and he does it all at once - before a crash, he's young handsome Leonardo DiCaprio; after, he's an older-looking one with a mustache.
DiCaprio's performance is superficially impressive, but he seems to play Hughes with two speeds - zippy thirties banter and a collection of broad tics. The former makes the character seem superficial, while the latter get the message that this guy was nuts across but don't seem to add up to a pathology. The wandering around his home/office naked doesn't seem to gibe with his obsessive-compulsive germophobia (which we're handily given an admonishing mother to explain); the repeated phrases may be OCD, but they don't seem to come from the same place. (Before anyone writes in berating my nonexistent knowledge of clinical psychology, I'm talking about what the film communicates, not an expert opinion) And what the heck was the deal with the teenage girl (or, as the movie implies but doesn't show, girls), anyway? And why does he make that point to Hepburn's family about money not being important to them because they have it, when he's not exactly a rags-to-riches story himself, having got his start by inheriting his father's tool company?
There's one scene, early on, where the obsessiveness seems to be part of Howard rather than a foce acting on him, as he runs his fingers along a plane's fuselage, checking for any raised rivet that may make it less aerodynamic. Briefly, one can see that his attention to detail is part of what made him a success until it got out of control and destroyed him (although the movie ends before Hughes is a complete recluse). That subtlety is abandoned later, and it's never clear just what Hughes's contributions to his aircraft are - sometimes he seems like a brilliant, intuitive engineer and sometime he seems like a dabbler receiving credit for others' work.
In fact, I briefly wondered if perhaps someone like James Cameron might be a better director for this material, someone a little more left-brained and thus able to understand and communicate what building a new type of airplane is like as an engineering project. Scorcese, like a lot of artistic types, seems fuzzy on what happens between concept and completion, other than that there are delays and cost overruns. This may seem like dry material that only gearheads would be interested in, but Scorcese called his movie The Aviator, not The Prodcuer or The Nut, and if creating and flying airplanes is Hughes's passion, shouldn't there be more insight into that?
What insight there is comes from some beautiful aeronautical sequences; the scene of Hughes filming a dogfight for Hell's Angels looks as crazy and exciting as anything from your favorite Star Wars movie. Every setting is lush and detailed and crowded, and Scorcese does a fine job of making Hughes stand out from the din; he does seem larger than life. And if the point was to mythologize Hughes by creating a biography in the style of a glamorous, Old-Hollywood spectacle, I can't exactly say he missed the mark.The Aviator is beautiful, and may even be close to accurate. It's also very much a case of style over substance, seldom looking past the obvious glitz, corruption and freakishness to show the title character as an individual worthy of the deluxe biographical treatment.
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originally posted: 01/18/05 09:39:37