On several occasions throughout the course of his Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator, Martin Scorcese throws in a contemporaneous snippet of newsreel footage or an archival radio broadcast. "Young Texas industrialist Howard Hughes just won't stop pouring money into his war epic. And do we mean epic!" one announcer gushes during the production of Hughes's film Hell's Angels. Later, another enthuses about the tycoon's record-setting trans-global flight in 1938: "Smashing all records, Howard Hughes outdoes Jules Verne's wildest dreams--around the world from New York to New York in four days!" Later still, a third enviously describes Hughes's Hollywood playboyhood: "Movie tycoon Howard Hughes must have the greatest job in the land. Each and every night the lucky guy has to escort a different beautiful woman to a different dazzling event!"
Such gee-whiz media commentaries are sometimes used in movies as counterpoints to the filmmaker's deeper or darker vision of the history in question. In the case of The Aviator, however, they pretty much sum up the film itself, a technically masterful but dramatically empty feat of celebrity mythologization. Throughout its 160 minutes, one can practically hear the exclamation points: Planes! Girls! Movies! Throw in a few de rigeur scenes of obsessive hand washing and of Hughes locked away in his screening room, naked and bearded, and you pretty much have Scorcese's film, a loose, episodic narrative chronicling Hughes's many exploits from the 1920s, when the young heir elbowed his way into Hollywood, through the 1940s, before his ultimate decline into hermitic lunacy.
The years in question provide Scorcese with an overabundance of material: Hughes directed Hell's Angels (which required the construction of a private air force) and The Outlaw (which required the construction of a special bra for Jane Russell); he broke the airspeed record and set new marks for flying from New York to Paris and for circling the globe; he dated Jean Harlow, Katherine Hepburn, and Ava Gardner, among others; he bought TWA and engaged in a years-long battle with Pan Am exec Juan Trippe that ultimately landed him before a congressional committee; he crashed twice, the second time almost fatally in the middle of Beverly Hills; he built and (briefly) flew the largest plane of all time, known to him as "the Hercules" but to everyone else as the "Spruce Goose."
The Aviator bounces along from one conquest to the next amiably enough, but somehow Hughes himself remains elusive. Though the movie faithfully catalogues his welter of activity and accomplishment, it never makes any real sense of his contradictions. The whole is so very much less than the sum of its parts. In part, it's because the film has so little critical distance from its subject. Hughes is the likable underdog who takes on Hollywood, and the airline industry, and the U.S. government--and bests them all. MGM head Louis B. Mayer is presented as a narrow-minded foil for Hughes to prove wrong; Pan Am's Trippe and his congressional lackey Owen Brewster are self-interested sleazeballs trying to squelch Hughes's aeronautic idealism.
In Hughes's relationship with Hepburn, which the movie presents as the great failed romance of his life, the film takes the young tycoon's side, too, despite the suggestion that he serially cheated on her. At a Hepburn family gathering in Connecticut, Kate's relatives are boorish snobs, the Van Dorens of Quiz Show on speed. There's not a hint of irony when Hughes--who inherited millions at age 18--lectures them that they don't like to talk about money because they "have it." Similarly, later in the film when Hughes has Gardner's apartment bugged or seduces his 15-year-old "discovery" Faith Domergue, the movie portrays him not as predatory or controlling but as sad, a man driven by his insecurity rather than his lust.
Hughes was driven by both, and not merely in the romantic sphere. But while the movie shows his ambition and his pathology, it never manages to explain how the two fit together. The suave Hughes who seduces a cigarette girl on the floor of the Cocoanut Grove restaurant has almost nothing in common with the quasi-paralytic who has repeated hygiene crises in its bathroom. (How could a man with a pathological terror of germs have been such a sexual conquistador? The movie offers no clue.) Hughes is charming, charming, charming--and then Errol Flynn poaches a pea from his plate, and he has to leave the restaurant; brilliant, brilliant, brilliant--and then he notices a speck on a colleague's lapel, and his brain shuts down. (The exception to this narrative bipolarity is a scene in which he lunches at Washington's Mayflower Hotel with Senator Brewster, who has prepared for his arrival by putting a large thumb print on his water glass and serving fish with the head on; it's perhaps the subtlest scene in the film, the one moment where it clearly conveys the battle between Hughes's will and his weakness.)
This is not to say that The Aviator doesn't have a "theory" of Hughes. It does. But it's simple to the point of dullness, a Freudian analysis printed on a highway billboard. The film both opens and closes with an erotically charged scene in which Hughes, as a boy, stands naked in a tub while his pretty mother bathes him and quizzes him on the spelling of "quarantine"; the second time around, he promises her that he'll grow up to "fly the fastest planes ever built, make the biggest movies ever, and be the richest man in the world." How tidy. It's all there in the washtub: the soon-to-be orphan's fear of germs, the need to prove something to an absent mother, the infantilized sexuality (portrayed throughout the film not only by his girlfriends' frequently maternal attentions, but also by his obsession with breasts and milk). The bath scenes are intended to be this movie's "Rosebud," but they're far too literal to be comparably evocative. Where Kane's boyhood sled was a background presence, Hughes's bathtime-with-mommy is front and center, shouting its significance. In this way the movie is like a murder mystery that announces its solution in the first five minutes.
It all adds up to a film devoid of the psychological depth and emotional ruthlessness that once made Scorcese a great director. Indeed, The Aviator may be the most upbeat film ever made about a man who died in isolation and insanity. This is, of course, intentional: The movie is presented to some degree as a corrective for our cultural memory of Hughes, in which those final loony decades have loomed far larger than his youthful achievements. But in focusing on the light and glossing over the dark, Scorcese is not playing to his cinematic gifts. There's no real energy or ugliness to Hughes's encroaching madness, no passion or terror. The result is a movie that is easygoing to the point of tepidness--a Raging Bull without the rage, a Taxi Driver in which Travis Bickel buys an airline instead of a gun, The King of Comedy reimagined with Rupert Pupkin and Jerry Langford combined into the same character, a neurotic misfit who's nevertheless spectacularly successful.
The Aviator's lack of dramatic heft is little helped by Scorcese's choice of leading man. This is his second consecutive film with Leonardo DiCaprio in the central role, with a third (a remake of Infernal Affairs set in Boston) already in the works. DiCaprio is a gifted actor, as his ability to keep Titanic's leaden dialogue at least partly afloat aptly demonstrated. But he has yet to show that he has the personal gravity to hold together a big film. He's too placid and unmarked, his face and frame not yet fully lived in. When he frowns or furrows his brow to convey seriousness, he still seems a little too much like a boy experimenting with facial expressions in a mirror. This was a problem in the last biopic in which he had to chart a character's development over decades, Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, but it's magnified in The Aviator. The former film's Frank Abignale, after all, was a picaresque small fry. Howard Hughes, by contrast, is a legendary figure (not to mention a tragic one) and the weight of that legend is more than DiCaprio's slight shoulders can quite bear.
Cate Blanchett's turn as Kate Hepburn, meanwhile, crosses the line into caricature. Like the movie itself, the performance all takes place on the surface--the clenched jaw and nasal accent, the head toss and nervous laugh to punctuate a sentence, the grandiose theatricality. (When DiCaprio tells her about a hot dog stand that's open until 4 a.m., she purrs, "Are they? How maaahvelous.") There are moments when Blanchett captures Hepburn's mannerisms uncannily. But she does so as an impressionist might do Cagney or Bogart, reflecting back to us the onscreen icon already lodged in our heads, rather than unveiling to us the offscreen human being. It's an awkward task to portray a figure so well-known to the audience, but the key lies in underplaying the recognizable tics and affectations in order to find the person hiding underneath. (Take, for example, Christopher Plummer's brilliant evocation of Mike Wallace in The Insider.) Blanchett instead works from the outside in, giving us a Hepburn who is little more than the sum of those tics and affectations. It's hard to believe she would have dared it (or the Academy dared give it an Oscar) if the original were still living.
If Ava Gardner were alive, by contrast, I can't help but think she'd have a good laugh over the casting of Kate Beckinsale to play her. Nothing against Beckinsale, who seemed promising enough before her career detoured into Pearl Harbor and a series of crummy vampire movies (Underworld, Van Helsing). But the twiggy young actress utterly lacks Gardner's carnal heft; she's like something Ava might have tucked into her cleavage for use at a later date, perhaps as dental floss. (Beckinsale reportedly gained 20 pounds for the role; it's disturbing to think that she probably needed at least 20 more.) Gwyneth Paltrow was originally signed to play Gardner, but it's doubtful she would have been much better. Is this really where we've wound up? A Hollywood so weight-obsessed that it's impossible to find an actress with enough meat on her bones to play a sex symbol of yesteryear?
Scorcese engineers The Aviator to end with a pair of triumphs for Hughes, cross-cutting back and forth between his earnest speechifying before Congress and the maiden voyage of the Spruce Goose, a gleaming monolith the size of a city block. The latter victory is an ironic one, though Scorcese declines to share it fully with the audience. That one-mile jaunt 70 feet above L.A. harbor was the only time the plane would ever fly; it was subsequently towed away to be hidden in a hangar, where it would not be seen again by the public until after Hughes's death three decades later. It's a fitting conclusion to The Aviator. Like the plane, the film also has its moments aloft. But for all its size and shimmer it never really goes anywhere.
The Home Movies List: Year of the Biopic
Kinsey (2004). A better central performance (by Liam Neeson) and a more thoughtful movie. Among other virtues, it neatly captures how its hero's distinction and derangement were one and the same. No, it doesn't have a parade of golden-era starlets. But since Hollywood was just selling sex, why not eliminate the middleman? The film becomes too tame and laudatory only at the very end, as it struggles (like The Aviator) to conclude on a happy note. (It leaves out, for example, that Kinsey responded to the Rockefeller Foundation's decision to end his funding by reportedly hanging himself from a rope attached to his genitals, resulting in a serious pelvic infection.)
Finding Neverland (2004). A sorely overpraised trifle. Depp takes a hiatus from his piratical mascara to deliver a nice, subdued performance, but he's sucked down by the triteness and treacle. (Is telling a boy who's just lost his mother that he should flee into the realm of imagination really the best advice?) Given the ongoing Michael Jackson circus, the movie's title suggests an exposé on celebrity sexual predation. And perhaps it should have been. But somehow J.M. Barrie's habit of photographing young boys nude didn't make the final cut.
The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004). Any movie that uses Bowie's "Space Oddity" without irony is probably not worth bothering with, and this HBO biopic upholds the rule. The film has a decided movie-of-the-week feel, and Geoffrey Rush never quite ceases to be Geoffrey Rush. The likeness, for starters, is not very apt: Sellers was a far leaner slice of ham. He may not be half the actor, but I couldn't help but long for Sellers doppelgänger Michael Panes (of The Anniversary Party, among others).
Ray (2004). The best of the bunch. Because it's a story of tragedy overcome rather than succumbed to, it doesn't have to glide and gloss over the more sordid chapters. In bringing the Genius back for one last encore, Jamie Foxx delivered, at 36, what looks like the performance of a lifetime. At the very least it's unlikely to be exceeded by his next portrayal of an American cultural icon, Detective Tubbs in next year's Miami Vice.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.