- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The pivotal unanswered question in “The Aviator,” Martin Scorsese’s diverting but frequently bewildering and irksome biographical saga about Howard Hughes between the years 1927-47, might be, “Howard, are you there?”

The question is asked by Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, a solicitous former Hughes consort, during the later stages of screenwriter John Logan’s curiously foreshortened and absent-minded chronicle. Miss Blanchett is outside the locked door of a private screening room where Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist is holed up, in naked solitude, filth and delirium.

Evidently, the paradoxically charismatic and reclusive Mr. Hughes, then about 40, is struggling to conceal and outlast another bout of dementia, typically signaled by repetitive muttering.

His mental illness is perhaps traceable to a weirdly alarming prologue in which we observe the future playboy, movie producer, pilot and aviation visionary as a little boy, being bathed by his mama and inculcated in phobic forebodings.

It’s definitely a creepy starting point, but the ensuing character study is never reliably coherent or revelatory. The dramatic lapses are offset to some extent by the evocation of the romance of Hollywood and aviation during periods that remain glamorously stirring.

While barely in his 20s, Mr. Hughes, the inheritor of a Texas oil-drilling equipment fortune, got the filmmaking bug and pestered the established industry as a wealthy, independent upstart, inclined to profligacy and perfectionism.

While trying to surpass the pre-eminent flying spectacle of 1927, “Wings,” with his own “Hell’s Angels,” eventually released in 1930, Mr. Hughes also launched a more sustained Hollywood sideshow as a suitor to starlets and leading ladies.

The movie derives genuine charm from Mr. DiCaprio’s courtship of Miss Blanchett, happily in control of her Hepburn voice and personality. (Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner in her prime is, by contrast, overmatched.)

There’s a blithe highlight sequence with Hughes flying Hepburn over Los Angeles at night. The most exciting sequences simulate Hughes as the pilot of swift and experimental machines that surge out of control, obliging him to crash-land, once with such appalling injuries it was a miracle he survived.

Admittedly, it’s a daunting assignment to summarize the life of Howard Hughes in a movie feature. On the other hand, Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz constructed a far stronger edifice when fictionalizing William Randolph Hearst for “Citizen Kane.”

And the older film ran two hours. The new one requires three, and still denies Mr. DiCaprio the challenge of playing a legendary American tycoon from dashing youth to infirm senility.

Perhaps it was felt that the recurrent signs of dementia and seclusion would suggest enough about the Hughes who lived 30 years beyond the fadeout — and sometimes emerged from his shell in commanding and rational ways.

But the filmmakers never find a means of orchestrating the character in and out of madness. For example, Hughes acts so far gone before arriving in Washington to testify before a hostile Senate committee that it’s hard to imagine him capable of recovery or self-defense.

Mr. DiCaprio first insinuates himself as the young Hughes when moved by an impulse to flatter a waitress at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub. When he remarks, “I want to learn what pleases you,” you’re persuaded of the innate seductive flair.

You’re also alerted to a thematic thread that keeps slipping away: the hint of lifelong contradictions in this adventurer, who may want to please others but enjoys a treacherously exaggerated license to please himself.


TITLE: “The Aviator”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, graphic violence, sexual candor and vulgarity and depictions of demented behavior; fleeting nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by John Logan. Cinematography by Robert Richardson. Production design by Dante Ferretti. Costume design by Sandy Powell. Special visual effects by Rob Legato. Music by Howard Shore. Editing by Thelma Schoonmaker

RUNNING TIME: 170 minutes

WEB SITE: www.theaviatormovie.com


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