Crash and Yearn
The parade of real-life figures strolling across movie screens has been endless this year: Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Johnny Depp as Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, Liam Neeson as sexologist Alfred Kinsey, Kevin Kline as standards composer Cole Porter, Gael García Bernal as horny revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great. It’s as if the studios have been taken over by the History Channel.
The Aviator, Martin Scorsese’s bio of Howard Hughes, is the most sumptuous of these affairs — appropriate, given its subject matter’s penchant for wasting millions chasing fantasies other men couldn’t afford even to dream about. The three-hour movie features Leonardo DiCaprio as the nutty genius, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner, Jude Law as Errol Flynn and Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow. At times it feels like the 1947 Warner Bros. cartoon “Slick Hare,” in which Elmer Fudd works a club populated by animated versions of the Marx Brothers, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart and Carmen Miranda; all Scorsese lacks is Bugs Bunny hopping through production designer Dante Ferretti’s fetishistically re-created Coconut Grove nightclub.
Scorsese keeps things aloft and buzzing. The director loves Hughes because he was Old Hollywood, because his movies, too, were expensive, long productions reviled by studios and adored by audiences. But the greatest compliment you can pay The Aviator is that it never feels three hours long. It’s great fun but nothing more, a few years of a wondrous and tortured life reduced to some grins and giggles before it comes to the conclusion all biopics seem to reach, that it was Mommy who ruined the Great Man when he was just a little boy. Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator and, of all things, the last Star Trek movie) attempt to rescue Hughes from his madman myth by blaming it all on his poor ol’ ma, seen in flashback scrubbing her naked son in a washtub while warning him of plagues that run rampant in the streets outside their Houston manse. Years later, his inherited fear of disease would apparently force him to keep his own urine in milk bottles, scenes Scorsese loves as much as those involving Hughes designing airplanes, buying and operating TWA, directing movies, and wooing Hepburn in a cockpit.
DiCaprio, his baby face still too soft and round for the crooks and crannies of Hughes’ angular visage, seems right for the part during the movie’s early going. Barking orders, DiCaprio’s Hughes is an impudent child who wants all the toys in the store. His giddiness is infectious: The movie can plaster a smile across your face as it soars from movie set to golf course to nightclub in search of a bad girl and a good time.
But like all biopics in which there are no surprises, The Aviator keeps its course and touches all the obvious points. The movie ends with the sole flight of the Spruce Goose in 1947 in Long Beach Harbor — not Hughes’ final triumph, but certainly a happier place to end than a dark Las Vegas hotel suite surrounded by jars of his own piss.