Hughes Your Fly Daddy

Veteran director Martin Scorcese attempts to shoot for the stars in his latest epic. It is certainly lighter than his past models of work. It is less violent but no less ambitious. The title points to Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man loaded with wealth and overloaded with grand ambitions. How grand? The first time we meet him (as a young man in late 1920’s) he’s making the most expensive movie to date. It’s a World War I pic that captures hundreds of planes in the sky. It’s a feat that requires a lot of pilots, cameras, and a professor of meteorology to locate the clouds. Oddly enough, the press dubbed the movie as Hughes’ “4 million dollar baby” during its glamorized movie premiere. Hughes’ foray in filmmaking significantly turned heads in Hollywood. His rising reputation brings him to the attention of A-list movie stars, such as Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani), Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), and Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). Now there’s a company that can make your heart flutter.

But Howard Hughes’ passion beats and flies with the aviation industry. He’s obsessed with developing the planes that are “the way of the future.” If he’s not building or flying the fastest plane, he’s constructing the largest. I have never in my life marveled at what an airplane can do until now. I have accepted them as part of today’s world. No big deal. But I can imagine the awe and astonishment Hughes generated when he was making elephantine structures fly. He was even able to further extend his wingspan by buying TWA. His vision for the airline is to broaden its services towards Europe, which worries the head of a rival airline (Alec Baldwin).

I had reservations watching “The Aviator” in the theaters because of its flying time of 2 hours and 46 minutes. But I found its pace to be refreshingly brisk. I attribute this to three things: its great rhythm in editing, Howard Shore’s magnificent score (better than his LOTR), and Cate Blanchett’s irrepressible turn as Katherine Hepburn. I still think Virginia Madsen (“Sideways”) should have been awarded the Oscar, but I’m not sad Blanchett stole it. She practically steals every scene she’s in anyway. And this is not a good thing for Leonardo DiCaprio, who used to be a scene-stealer himself (see “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”). His lead performance is quite uneven. In the beginning, his boyish looks and fabricated accent betray him, but eventually you get used to it. He excelled in portraying Hughes’ ticks and discomfort. In one scene, he nails Howard’s uneasiness when he’s watching his own film at a premiere. But when it comes to scenes where Howard goes mad, DiCaprio looks like he’s acting, rather than being in character. And I might add that these scenes are the dead weight of the movie.

The strength of “The Aviator” is not its heavy dramatic element anyway. I’m not much interested in the guy’s inner demons. I marveled at its ascent. It should be seen as a celebration of a visionary risk-taker. And can we say the same thing of Martin Scorcese? His remarkable talent is evident here. Who else can orchestrate a sprawling epic like this? I haven’t seen the heydays of 1930s looking this good. The much praised director is celebrated everywhere but at the Oscars. I believe he can still win that elusive “Best Director.” As much as I enjoyed the ride in “The Aviator,” I know Scorcese can do better. I’m already anticipating his next project – the American remake of “Infernal Affairs.” It’s an awfully good story and hopefully he can pull it off better with DiCaprio. But just in case it doesn’t work, I hear Robert De Niro is quite an actor.

Grade: A