2004, PG-13, 166 min. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Ian Holm.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 24, 2004
Those looking to catch a glimpse of the 20th century’s most infamous and raggedy madman-cum-tycoon during his obsessive-compulsive final days overlooking the Vegas strip with Kleenex-boxed feet and Guinness-record fingernails will have to sate their curiousity elsewhere. Scorsese's exhilarating rocket of a biopic focuses not on the decline of Howard Hughes (although the twitches and tics that finally brought him fully into the grip of lunacy escalate throughout), but on the man’s rise and eventual plateau, his loves won, lost, and discarded, and the indomitable blue-steel drive that made Hughes Aircraft the flawed juggernaut that it was. It’s Scorsese’s best work in years, sidestepping the overwrought and overproduced overkill of Gangs of New York in favor of a more streamlined approach: The film has the glossy look and dynamic feel of one of Hughes' hyper-aerodynamic aviation prototypes. It's less Spruce Goose and more P-38, and when the Scorsese opens up and fires on all cylinders, as in a sequence re-creating the spectacular aerial dogfights in Hughes’ first foray into filmmaking – 1930's Hell's Angels – The Aviator captures the seat-of-your-pants thrills of a true pioneer. Choosing the baby-faced DiCaprio to play Hughes may have engendered some winces when it was announced, but the actor, like Hughes himself (not to mention Scorsese), is a perfectionist, and his portrayal of this brash and dashing force of nature is bang on. It's a long way from romancing Kate Winslet aboard The Titanic to wandering naked around a projection room compulsively draining milk bottles and refilling them with his own urine, but DiCaprio is clearly at the top of his game here. He's best, not surprisingly, in the film's first two hours (it’s a nearly three-hour ride), during which he gets to toss around his brazenly handsome charm like a sexy sack of gold, romancing not just cigarette girls (although that particular scene is a creepy doozy) but eventually wooing and winning Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn. Blanchett is shown here as the key female figure in Hughes’ adult life (after his mother, of course, who is introduced briefly in an opening scene that would have given both Freud and Charles Foster Kane a run for their money), and while she doesn’t look much at all like the legendary actress, both Blanchett and her Hepburn exude an earthy, stoic femininity that grounds the high-flying airdog. Up against Hughes’ clenched jaw and gleaming, predatory gaze, Hepburn met her match and then some, but it’s Hughes who gets the Dear Howard sucker punch when it becomes clear he’s more interested in his planes and his philandering than his glamorous girlfriend. Enter Beckinsale playing a nihilistic Ava Gardner, a catty, opportunistic hellion who sees her man through thin and thinner (not to mention This Island Earth’s Faith Domergue). Hughes’ only other stab at film directing revolved around Jane Russell's bosoms in 1943's The Outlaw. John Logan’s script for The Aviator makes much of Hughes' mother's-milk fixation, but the pop psychology takes a back seat to Hughes' far more palatable will to power – he designs amazing airplanes, flies them, crashes them (horrifically so), and eventually creates TransWorld Airlines before spiraling down, but not yet out, in a glorious burst of madness and desire. This sprawling, quasi-epic tale of the desperately flawed Hughes isn't Scorsese’s best work – it’s difficult if not impossible to trump Raging Bull or GoodFellas – but it’s a clear return to form after the last decade’s occasionally self-indulgent stumbles. It’s bravura, classic Hollywood filmmaking, and you like to think that Hughes himself would have viewed it, if not appreciatively, then at least with a sense of kinship. (Opens Saturday.)