One would expect a Baz Luhrmann, Tim Burton, or Steven Spielberg to be responsible for tedious, rambling fluff like The Aviator. Indeed, I can scarcely believe that this way-overlong, splashy biopic about the aviation movie-maker and entrepreneur Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) could have been directed by the same man who helmed Goodfellas and Taxi Driver. Yet it was. The man’s name is Martin Scorsese, and his understanding of the word “sellout” is second to none among Hollywood’s elite.
Yes, he sells all right, and what sells is celebrity. Like Simon Curtis in My Week With Marilyn, Scorsese uses The Aviator as a vehicle for showing the thirst of the public for stars. Looking skyward, they hope to light up their dreary, mundane existences. Sure, both Marilyn Monroe and Howard Hughes come to view the flash of the press’s cameras as an oppression, and we’re supposed to see that as a shrewd, sympathy-worthy observation when it’s really just a banal truism. Really, what pity are we supposed to feel for a man who thought film should constitute an extravaganza of biplane aerobatics and used a tycoon’s inheritance to vault himself to fame? A movie like Hughes’s Hell’s Angels—and, indeed, The Aviator—seems daring in the same way that Evil Knievel‘s motorcycle stunts are: it’s superficial flash n’trash that satisfies our emotional need for fear and its concomitant relief—or, put in a clichéd way—it’s an emotional roller-coaster ride. But as much as I don’t deny that it’s entertaining to watch a bear jump through a fiery hoop or a a trampoline artist’s defiance of gravity, I’d stop short of calling it art. That sets me apart from the all-knowing members of the Academy, of course.
Scorsese could have done so much better if he had explored Hughes’s neurotic personality further, namely his debilitating case of obsessive-compulsive order and the effects of his symbiotic relationship with his mother on his mental illness. In that way, the film could have proved itself worthy of its biopic genre by entering into a more complex character study. On this note, the opening scene of the film has promise: it shows Hughes as a child being given a bath by his mother, who is warning him against contracting diseases. Shortly thereafter, the jarringly abrupt flash-forward to Hughes as a young movie director in 1927 puts intellectual curiosity to rest. Scorsese goes on to relate how Hughes had little more to offer the world than hand-washing, obsessing, fund-finagling, and girl-chasing,
A rudderless meta-movie like this is a sign from the sky that the popular lust for ever-more-familiar experiences is the only thing keeping the industry afloat. Scorsese seems to share his protagonist’s delight in putting himself at the smug crux of schlock movie-watching experiences, constantly depicting Hughes at the center of his own screening room, the bright lights of the projector drowning out the background as he obsessively studies each frame. However, as truth would have it, Hughes can only share the spotlight with the famous women in his life, such as the Connecticut lockjaw Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Sinatra‘s marital plaything Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale).
Both Blanchett and Beckinsale are fabulous actresses in the English tradition, and both are capable of making DiCaprio look like the whiny little boy he is. But in The Aviator, they’re as miscast as they are misdirected. For one thing, Blanchett’s husky accent is as stilted as her gesticulations are jerky. Evidently, she’s trying to capture the same flighty nonchalantness that Hepburn conveys in Bringing Up Baby, one of her few satisfying performances and a film that Scorsese shamelessly quotes when Hughes meets her on a golf course. Blanchett’s movements resemble a giraffe’s; it’s a hopelessly awkward attempt to stick her neck into unfamiliar territory. Meanwhile, Beckinsale—granted, one of the most beautiful dishes Hollywood has ever served up—has about as much sex appeal in this role as an amoeba, her drily recited lines as rough as sandpaper. Of course, with the pasty DiCaprio by their side, it’s easy to see why neither of these dames can muster more romantic chemistry.
Why DiCaprio has been such a frequent collaborator with Scorsese is initially almost as incomprehensible as the success of this film—until one remembers that his smart-alecky little leer makes him the poster child for an age in which people think The Bachelor is worthy of prime time. Actually, unlike his leading ladies, he seems the perfect choice for a film as fixated on narcissistic self-image as this one is. From the clicks of martini glasses to the swishing of evening gowns, The Aviator is a filmmaker’s self-congratulatory celebration of style for its own sake. With his take-me-seriously eye squints. DiCaprio hopes we’ll think he has a man’s vision. Superficial portrayals like this are his forte, of course. Baz Luhrmann practically recycled this character for DiCaprio almost 10 years later in his watered-down take on The Great Gatsby,
The difference is that Luhrmann’s high-school understanding of one of the greatest American novels didn’t garner near-universal acclaim the way that Scorsese’s directionless biopic did. Why he felt the need to go on and on with such linear, drab storytelling for nearly three hours seems beyond comprehension. I can only pin it down to the self-indulgence of a man who’s become obsessed with the power of his own reputation. With its $110 million budget, The Aviator tries to soar into the wild blue yonder of the imagination. Unfortunately, most of that money was blown on CG aviation, the sort of stuff that made much more sense, and was used to much better effect, in the pod race in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. In films like The Aviator and his later cartoonish meta-movie Hugo, Scorsese started to move away from what he knew and loved—namely, the mob bacillus and the grittiness of inner-city warfare—to the glib special effects and shallow characterization people seem to ceaselessly crave. The result is a nosedive into the predictable world of the blockbuster. I hate to say this about a director of such obvious natural talent, but I have grave doubts that the aging Scorsese will ever take to the sky again.
Joe’s Grade: C