December 24, 2004

The Aviator

Directed by Martin Scorsese Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Even though Robert De Niro’s career has mostly descended into a parody of his method-acting former self, his frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese still blinks on the radar of relevance. But a desire to land awards recognition seems to have clouded the director’s judgment of late, steering him away from the angst-ridden, heavily voiced-over portraits of studied masculine alienation that first put him on the map. While recent efforts like Gangs of New York and the new Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator aren’t as off course as Kundun or The Age of Innocence, Scorsese has unfortunately overlooked their potential to allow his auteurist tastes to truly take flight. This pair of Miramax Oscar baits has his archetypical solitary protagonists aboard, but the director misguidedly glosses over their inner demons with extravagantly messy pizzazz.

Garishly indulging in old-Hollywood glitz and who’s-who trivial pursuit, The Aviator is sporadically reminiscent of the campier moments in De-Lovely. The two fact-based films not only share Louis B. Mayer as a minor character, both achieve mixed results featuring numerous cameos by today’s celebrities as the stars of yesteryear. Here for example, Cate Blanchett does an amusing riff on Katharine Hepburn while Kate Backinsale is sadly no Ava Gardner. Still, whether Scorsese’s film functions on any level depends on whether you buy the boyish Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes. While at the right age and a competent performer, DiCaprio doesn’t embody the larger-than-life aura that one would expect from the aviator/movie mogul/billionaire.

The Aviator starts its engine with a masterful scene of Citizen Kane proportions, foreshadowing the hypochondriac condition that will eventually take a toll on Hughes and also consume the film itself. Later Scorsese obsessive-compulsively fuels the film with depictions of the man’s eccentricities – such as fetishistic hand-washing and erratic quarantine – that frantically scrub away the quiet solitude the director generates through shots framing DiCaprio from behind. Ultimately, screenwriter John Logan is responsible for the film’s biggest mechanical failure. Paul Schrader might have immediately deciphered all the Jake LaMotta parallels in Hughes’ turbulent life, but Logan navigates through it as if it were Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera – with all the song and dance but none of the substance. When it arrives at the climactic congressional hearing where Hughes fought off war-profiteering charges, The Aviator finally dissolves into a mediocre legal drama.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.