The Aviator Review
By Joe Lozito
"Aviator" Doesn't Take Off
For my money, writer John Logan is starting to overstay his welcome. Hollywood continues to use Mr. Logan as their epic go-to-guy, perhaps forgetting that the man who penned "Gladiator" also brought us "The Time Machine", "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas" and "Star Trek: Nemesis". I don't mean to imply that Mr. Logan is a bad writer by any means, but I wouldn't treat his scripts as gospel either. How did Martin Scorsese, arguably the finest filmmaker of his generation, not notice the glaring omission of character from Mr. Logan's script? Rather than shedding any light on what made Howard Hughes go from aviation-pioneering billionaire playboy to bizarre, eccentric hermit, "The Aviator" becomes a highlight reel of Mr. Hughes' triumphs with some of his trademark OCD sprinkled in as the plot dictates.
As someone who's no stranger to OCD, let me tell you, it does not choose opportune moments to strike and it is not, as Leonardo DiCaprio's two-note performance would have you believe, easily controlled. Mr. DiCaprio possesses neither the gravity nor the physicality required for this role. His performance oscillates between whimpering frailty and his standard man-about-town swagger. Not that either of those feelings are untrue to the material, but there needs to be more range in a story of this magnitude. Mr. DiCaprio has yet to live up to the promise he showed in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and of late he's been best when sticking to traditional leading man heartthrob-type roles ("Catch Me If You Can", "Romeo & Juliet" and, of course "Titanic"). "Aviator" requires a lot of its lead actor and Mr. DiCaprio is lost at sea. I'm uncertain why Mr. Scorsese was not able to coax a more full-bodied performance out of the actor he has seemingly adored since the equally disappointing "Gangs of New York", but it possibly goes back to the script, which doesn't provide much insight into the character of Howard Hughes, with the exception of saying that he had a very spooky mom.
Mr. Scorsese also must have been busy dealing with his much-heralded fear of flying. "The Aviator", which contains several CGI-heavy scenes of Mr. Hughes piloting test craft including one spectacular, but oddly slow-moving, crash sequence, would seem an odd choice for a director more at home on the mean streets of New York. Clearly, Mr. Scorsese fell in love with the idea of recreating the Golden Age of Hollywood and he does so with his usual flair. The director's use of a three-color filmstock to evoke the look of the time reflects some of his best work. And clearly, he has had fun filling out the star-studded events at the Coconut Grove with the likes of Errol Flynn (the ubiquitous Jude Law), Jean Harlow (a promising but underused Gwen Stefani) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale, taking a break from vampire-hunting to actually act again).
But with all this going for it, "The Aviator" just never gets off the ground. Its plot moves from event to event without a story driving it and the audience is left drifting along. Key moments in Mr. Hughes' life are brought up and then dropped (hearing loss, crash wounds, relationships), and he always seems on the brink of bankruptcy. Mr. DiCaprio goes through the motions of playing Howard Hughes, but we never understand the man. His notorious OCD is given particularly short-shrift. It would have been interesting to understand where it came from, what drove it and what allowed Mr. Hughes to be the playboy he was rumored to be if he was so afraid of germs.
The real standout in the film, however, is Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn. I never thought watching the Howard Hughes story would make me long for the Katharine Hepburn story, but sure enough, despite lacking a physical resemblance to Ms. Hepburn (except some well-placed freckles), Ms. Blanchett's performance is everything that's lacking from that of Mr. DiCaprio. What seems to start as impersonation quickly becomes personification. Ms. Blanchett seems to channel Ms. Hepburn from the inside out. Her relationship with Mr. Hughes is a small gem within a directionless larger film, particularly the scene in which she brings Mr. Hughes home to meet the family (the best moment in the film). When Ms. Hepburn's character meets Spencer Tracy, it's a rare subtle moment which makes us happy for Kate but sad for us because it heralds the end of her presence in the film. Ms. Blanchett simply gives a stunning performance that had me hoping some producer would quickly sign the actress for Ms. Hepburn's biopic. Just don't go to John Logan for the script.