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Review: ‘Aviator’ Ultimately Superficial

December 17, 2004

Nearly three hours later, I still don’t understand Howard Hughes any better than when I sat down to watch “The Aviator.”

Oh, the film is visually astounding and all. Martin Scorsese’s latest extravaganza is truly a sight to behold, constantly dazzling and frequently thrilling. Every detail is perfect – as you’d imagine from a director who’s as famous for perfectionism as the eccentric billionaire Hughes – from the Art Deco accents on the stairway railings in Hughes’ office to the red lipstick Gwen Stefani wears during a brief appearance as Jean Harlow.

Strong performances abound, from star Leonardo DiCaprio to Cate Blanchett as Hughes’ legendary love, Katharine Hepburn, to Alan Alda as a scheming senator. (It’s soothing just to hear his familiar voice again, even though every word that comes out of his mouth is duplicitous.)

See it for the plane crash alone – a wondrously thunderous spectacle in which the stubborn Hughes refuses to land his newest aircraft during a test run, and plows it into the top of a Beverly Hills mansion.

That’s actually a great word to describe the whole film: It’s a spectacle. And similar to Scorsese’s last collaboration with DiCaprio, the 2002 behemoth “Gangs of New York,” it’s ultimately superficial and not completely satisfying.

Maybe Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan (“Gladiator,”"The Last Samurai”) were doomed from the start in trying to tell the story of someone so notoriously mysterious, yet at the same time larger than life. Scorsese seems more interested in aesthetics at the expense of substance, and Logan’s script fails to delve deeply enough into Hughes’ psychology.

We know the eccentric billionaire had a germ phobia so intense he carried disinfectant soap in his pocket wherever he went, and that a speck of lint on a business associate’s lapel would render him incapable of completing a sentence. But why?

We know the young Texan sunk the family drill-bit fortune he inherited into airplanes and movies – and sometimes, as in the 1930 film he produced, “Hell’s Angels,” he threw millions at movies about airplanes. But why? Why are these his passions, and not baseball or ballroom dance or some other arbitrary pursuit?

By recreating some of the key moments of Hughes’ life – including buying TWA, setting new speed records, competing with Pan Am chief Juan Trippe (a convincingly conniving Alec Baldwin) and dating glamorous starlets – but providing little insight, “The Aviator” feels like an lavish, handsome game of dress-up.

Speaking of gorgeous, cinematographer Robert Richardson bathes the film in golden light to create a warm feeling of nostalgia and uses crisp, bright colors for the dramatic flying sequences. (The shooting of “Hell’s Angels,” with a swarm of airplanes circling and swooping toward each other through the clouds, is especially impressive.) Costume designer Sandy Powell outfits everyone flawlessly (Kate Beckinsale looks jaw-droppingly beautiful as Ava Gardner) and production designer Dante Ferretti, a longtime Scorsese collaborator, makes sure every scene is jam-packed with ideal details.

These are the real stars of “The Aviator,” and they’ve helped create the kind of film for which the phrase “Oscar buzz” seems specifically to have been coined.

As for the names you’re more familiar with, Blanchett is a complete joy to watch as Hepburn: She’s not doing a dead-on impression, and she shouldn’t be, but she definitely embodies the actress’ spirit. Just seeing her stride across a golf course and hearing her ask Hughes in that hard New England accent whether he likes the the-a-tah – because she just loves the the-a-tah – is a total hoot.

Then there is DiCaprio.

The theory exists that he looks too young to play Hughes. I have no problem with that; his charisma and energy, which made him so similarly irresistible last year in “Catch Me If You Can,” help him overcome his innate boyishness. And once Hughes descends into madness and hides inside his screening room – naked, unshaven, muttering to himself and urinating into empty milk bottles – DiCaprio is utterly believable, as well.

As DiCaprio has shown before, in pretty much every film he’s made besides “Titanic,” he’s perfectly capable of going dark. If only his efforts had shed more light on the character he portrays, “The Aviator” might truly have taken flight.

“The Aviator,” a Miramax Films and Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language and a crash sequence. Running time: 166 minutes. Three stars out of four.

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G – General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG – Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 – Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R – Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 – No one under 17 admitted.