Saturday, January 22, 2005

Pilot Lite

Martin Scorcese's Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator is being widely touted as the veteran director's last great shot at Oscar recognition. Despite the possibility of a late swing for Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby or Alexander Payne's wine-tasting comedy Sideways, this does make a great deal of sense, as by any reckoning Scorcese deserves some payback for his masterpiece Raging Bull being snubbed in favour of Robert Redford's Ordinary People a quarter of a century ago. The film being a lavish and epic account of the eccentric multi-millionnaire's life which richly details Hollywood's context in the world of industry as well as entertainment probably won't hurt his chances either. Throw in a 'disease-of-the-week' factor in Hughes' descent into obsessive-compulsive disorders, and surely all bets are off?

This isn't to say this is Scorcese's finest hour, however, as it pales by comparison to his LaMotta biopic which managed to be raw, lurid and beautiful as well as telling a great story. The first half of The Aviator often feels like a standard biopic, albeit with classier than usual supporting actors (John C Reilly and Danny Huston given little to do but look concerned as they take Hughes' orders) and high-profile cameos (Jude Law crashes the party as Errol Flynn, Gwen Stefani keeps it pretty much zipped as Jean Harlow, and Willem Dafoe, erm, gets to wear a nice hat) and it only really comes to life during the genuinely stunning aerial sequences (including a couple of spectacular crashes). If Scorcese's interest in the Hollywood glitz is skittish and skin-deep, however, the potentially drier second half of the story, where Hughes tries to keep a grip on his sanity while combatting the big business interests represented by the Pan-Am boss (a credible Alec Baldwin, who looks like he's taken Juan Tripp too many to the larder just lately) and a corrupt senator (Alan Alda, oilier than a dirty rag) is seriously dramatic stuff which brings the best out of DiCaprio and gives the movie a sense of gravitas and purpose demanded by the long running time (160mins+).

The sparks created by DiCaprio and Alda/Baldwin in the final third serve to highlight the relative lack of passion generated in the romantic sequences earlier in the film. Given the crackling domestic exchanges in his films like Casino and Raging Bull one might have expected Scorcese to mine cinematic gold from Hughes' lifetime as a legendary romeo who loved and lost the likes of Harlow, Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. Cate Blanchett works hard to present Hepburn as a warm and protective foil for the troubled hero but her need to provide a serviceable vocal impression of one of Tinseltown's best-loved and easily-recognised stars works against this, as does her physical incompability with diCaprio which results in them never feeling like a believable couple. In contrast, Kate Beckinsale may not be anybody's idea of Ava Gardner really (apart from the casting director, presumably) but at least you can believe she and diCaprio could be an item, even though the script gives her so little to do that the part seems almost an insult. Kelli Garner as Faith Domergue fares little better, although it has to be said her jaw-droppingly spectacular cleavage deserves a special Academy Award category of its' own.

In conclusion, The Aviator has serious flaws (or should we call them pilot errors?), but it's never dull and is worth sticking with for moviegoers with an interest in the history of commercial aviation or who are willing to be absorbed in a dramatic presentation of the conflicting interests of free enterprise and big business within the incredible story of one man's life.


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