DVD Review Of The
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/28/05
The problem that almost all biopics have is that they tell far too much of their subjects’ life facts that most of the drama is drained. They never seem to find the important nor key moments in a life in which to imbue the tale, rather they cram a life with minutia, and miss out on any real insight. Such it is with Martin Scorsese’s latest film, now out on DVD. The Aviator spans twenty or so years in the life of Howard Hughes, the reclusive billionaire and eccentric, but never delves into the man, merely glossing the surface of its subject, mainly due to the pallid script by John Logan of Gladiator infamy. Having recently watched a DVD version of Raging Bull, from 1980, the difference is stark. I’ve never thought Raging Bull was Scorsese’s best work- it’s not on a par with Taxi Driver, The King Of Comedy, After Hours, nor Goodfellas- but it can be argued as a great film, and it’s a cut above this film whose first half has potential, albeit flawed, but whose second half reeks.
The film has many flaws, other than the script, though. The major one being Leonardo DiCaprio is simply not a good nor compelling actor, especially in comparison to Robert De Niro. He is, next to Tom Cruise, perhaps the most milquetoast and passionless actor going and radiates none of the magnetism, power, and arrogance of the real man- he is a boy pretending to be a man, and clearly way out of his league. He has absolutely zero range, and is unwilling to let go of himself to the role. He is always Leonardio DiCaprio, never Howard Hughes. Better actors, like Brad Pitt in Kalifornia or A River Runs Through It, do so. DiCaprio is woefully miscast- although since he shepherded the film to fruition Scorsese had little choice but to use him. First off, he doesn’t age, as Hughes, in the twenty years of the film- what? Was all the money gone for looser prosthetic jowls or crow’s feet? At forty-five Hughes still looks like a teenager, especially in scenes with his airline rival Juan Trippe, as played by Alec Baldwin, a man who in real life was only a few years older than Hughes. Next to Baldwin the two characters seem of different generations- as the fey DiCaprio may not be able to pass for thirty until he’s fifty or sixty, and certainly never lets us in to the ‘real’ Hughes’, as he is content with mere gesticulation. DiCaprio also looks nothing like Hughes, facially, but that’s not so important if the acting is up to snuff- think Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone’s Nixon. This evidences itself in that DiCaprio sounds nothing like Hughes, and the constant ticking and twitching he does to suggest that Hughes suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is just too carny for a convincing dramatic role, even up to the film’s final shot of Hughes in a Tourette’s Syndrome-like daze- which is far too reminiscent of both the prison and end scenes of Raging Bull. It’s never a good sign when a director has to rip off a better, earlier film of his own.
The rest of the casting is pretty much a bust- often from the actual miscasting. There are cameos by Willem Defoe, Jude Law, Brent Spiner, Ian Holm, and Gwen Stefani, but there was no reason to get these names since they were not used to any great extent. John C. Reilly as Noah Dietrich, Hughes’ number two man, is wasted, even though his character may have been the entrée into Hughes’ persona- as a de facto father figure to replace the relationship Hughes lost with his own dead father, and Alan Alda’s Oscar nomination as sleazy Senator Ralph Brewster, Pan Am honcho Trippe’s flunky, is a joke. Alda is merely Hawkeye Pierce with some gray and a bad attitude. Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner is competent, but radiates none of the goddess glamour her real-life counterpart had. But, the worst has to be Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning turn as Katherine Hepburn. She looks nothing like Hepburn, and never, for a moment convinces that she is Hepburn. She is merely imitating, not grounding a character apart from the real life person, as Hopkins did in Nixon, where the viewer forgets the real Nixon after a while. That said, it’s a good impression, but nothing more, and there is none of the seething undertone to this film that exists in Scorsese’s best work. There is no real passion that seems to exist in DiCaprio’s Hughes- neither for his women, especially Hepburn, nor for his companies nor flying. And for a film called The Aviator, you would think it would concentrate, say, on Hughes’ round the world venture, not just a few times in the cockpit.
Then there is the film’s other big problem- its utter disconnect from the facts. If the film were working, on a whole, this would not glare so greatly. But, as the film has manifest weaknesses, the fact that much of the film is pure fiction sticks out much more tellingly. There are many things amiss in the idea that Hepburn was Hughes’ true love, as well that Hughes was not nearly so monumental to the airline industry as the film and DVD commentaries insist, much less the bevy of other claims made of Hughes on modern life. He was, in most respects, a venture capitalist with a big ego, bigger libido, and raging aborning insanity. Charles Lindbergh, Cecil B. DeMille, and the real Juan Trippe lost little sleep over Hughes stealing their respective thunders as hero, filmmaker, and airline guru. Trippe was, in fact, far more seminal and important a figure in that business than Hughes ever was. And the Spruce Goose was a complete bust- its mile long flight was considered a failure because it proved that even without heavy cargo it was wholly impractical and, yes, a huge boondoggle at the taxpayers’ expense. Were it not it would have obviously flown again. Ironically, despite being the film’s number one bad guy, Baldwin gives the film’s best performance, as the understated, but sly, CEO of Pan-American Airlines, rival to Hughes’ TWA. Lastly, most Hughes biographers have pinned Hughes’ mental breakdowns as coming in the mid to late 1950s, not nearly so early in his life, as the film depicts- and this dovetailed with his later celibacy, not his earlier Don Juanism. That his OCD is the dominant motif in the film, and one called The Aviator, is one of the film’s many missteps.
Overall, this is no more a Scorsese film than Spartacus was a Stanley Kubrick film- he was brought on to it only after Michael Mann decided he didn’t want to direct the film- and the lack of classic Scorsese touches, heart, soul, and angst manifest this fact. This is an overblown Hollywood blockbuster with mediocre special effects- the flight scenes when Hughes films Hell’s Angels are particularly bad- one can even see the planes standing out with large borders against the projection against the blue screen.
Coming after the almost as equally disappointing big budget film Gangs Of New York I think it’s time for Scorsese to get away from bloated Hollywood projects and direct a few smaller, leaner, films with grit. He needs to reconnect with his earlier self- as he did when he renewed his career in the mid-80s with After Hours, and in the mid-90s with Kundun. He is, with only Woody Allen as a serious rival, this nation’s greatest living film director, but like Allen he may have his best work all behind him, and be on cruise control now, just counting down the years to that inevitable honorary Oscar. He seems to have lost all interest in character-driven works, instead going in for sweeping panoramas, whereas this subject matter actually demands a character-based approach, despite its larger than life lead character. And that means going beyond the implied Oedipal basis of Hughes’ OCD, as well as its ravages. Hughes was a notoriously ‘bad boss’ and among the worst of the ‘capitalist swine’ of his day- the living embodiment of excess and depravity.
Yet the film and its features do little but overpraise, as many features deal with OCD, as if shilling for the disease, rather than actually giving insight into the making of the film. the actual commentary with Scorsese and editors is better than the typical fellatio on most DVDs, yet still talks more about color schemes of the time period, and the excess blues being because of two tone, rather than three tone coloration of films of the day, than why Scorsese found this man or period compelling. In short, it’s a rather conventional features array for a rather conventional Hollywood film by Martin Scorsese. While not bad, that’s also not good. If you need proof just ask yourself if you ever thought you’d hear a phrase like ‘a rather conventional Hollywood film by Martin Scorsese’ and you’ll get the points that Scorsese did not.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 9/05 Hackwriters website.]
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