'The Aviator' movie review: Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent – but not as Howard Hughes
Imagine Citizen Kane directed by the Steven Spielberg of The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan. The final result would look something like a Barry Levinson film – for instance, the superficial and phony Bugsy. Or, an even more appropriate example, the superficial, phony, and bloated The Aviator.
Except, of course, that Levinson is not the man responsible for the 2004 mega-production starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the eccentric (i.e., mentally unbalanced), billionaire ladies' man Howard Hughes. Strangely enough, that man is Martin Scorsese, the director of hard-hitting films such as Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Gangs of New York.
What's not good for the Spruce Goose…
Scorsese, a fan of Old Hollywood, apparently wanted to have some fun with the reported $110 million budget (approx. $138 million in 2016) made available to him. The director no doubt had a ball while making The Aviator, but whether he was able to impart that joie de filmmaking to most moviegoers is debatable.
Clocking in at 169 minutes, The Aviator tries to stay aloft, but like Howard Hughes' much-too-big and much-too-heavy Spruce Goose (a.k.a. The Hercules), this cinematic jumbo can only keep itself in the air for a few minutes at a time. Central miscasting, a yearning to turn the conflicted protagonist into a (somewhat) conventional film hero, and an excess of glitz – so we won't notice the story's lack of substance – force The Aviator down each time after take-off.
Hollywood movie psychology
Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan begin their tale by having us witness the boy Howard Hughes (Jacob Davich), after having finished his bath, being dried by his weird-looking mom (Amy Sloan). That moment turns out to be a simple-minded and, really, unnecessary “explanation” for the adult Hughes' obsession with the opposite sex. Things don't get much more shaded after that.
By the late 1920s, Jacob Davich has grown into Leonardo DiCaprio, who happens to be one of the best actors around, but who looks like he would be more comfortable starring in “The Orson Welles Story.” Although DiCaprio's performance in and of itself is flawless, he simply doesn't look the part of the up-and-coming movie magnate and inveterate seducer.
For instance, when paired with Best Supporting Actress Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett's (absurdly mannered) Katharine Hepburn, DiCaprio looks like her overgrown adopted son. He's just as helpless next to Kate Beckinsale's Ava Gardner and Kelli Garner's Faith Domergue.
Hypochondriacal sex animal
Not helping matters, Logan's screenplay fails to delve into Howard Hughes' intricate psyche. As a result, it's mystifying to see how Hughes could be a hypochondriacal freak – e.g., even afraid of touching door handles lest he catch a bug – while at the same time be ever so willing to exchange bodily fluids with stars and starlets alike.
Just as mind-boggling is how Hughes' lapse into depression following a horrific plane crash in the mid-1940s is instantly cured after Ava Gardner shows up to give him a life-changing shave.
Billionaire Frank Capra-ish movie hero
Later in the film, issues such as Hughes' immeasurable power (and his hunger for more, more, more) and his unsavory ties to the U.S. government are surreptitiously brushed aside so Logan and Scorsese can focus instead on a movie battle between hero (Hughes) and villain (crooked Republican senator Ralph Owen Brewster, gutsily played by Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Alan Alda).
Ironically, as far as I'm concerned the best moment in The Aviator isn't the (admittedly impressive) aerial battle at the beginning of the film or the plane crash later on, but the brief footage from Howard Hughes' own Hell's Angels – a movie made more than 80 years ago for about 1/10th (inflation-adjusted) of The Aviator's budget.
The Aviator (2004)
Dir.: Martin Scorsese.
Scr.: John Logan.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (as Howard Hughes). Cate Blanchett (as Katharine Hepburn). Kate Beckinsale (as Ava Gardner). Alan Alda (as Senator Ralph Owen Brewster).
Alec Baldwin (as Pan Am honcho Juan Trippe). Kelli Garner (as Faith Domergue). Gwen Stefani (as Jean Harlow). Ian Holm. Adam Scott. Jude Law (as Errol Flynn).
Frances Conroy (as Katharine Hepburn's mother). Willem Dafoe. Jacob Davich (as the boy Howard Hughes). Edward Herrmann (as censor Joseph Breen). Danny Huston.
John C. Reilly (as Howard Hughes' business empire CEO Noah Dietrich). Stanley DeSantis (as Louis B. Mayer). Matt Ross. Brent Spiner. Amy Sloan (as Howard Hughes' mother).
Kenneth Welsh (billed as Kenneth Walsh; plays Katharine Hepburn's father). Sam Hennings. Rufus Wainwright. Kevin O'Rourke (as Spencer Tracy). Chris Ufland.
Uncredited: Lawrence of Arabia and Murder on the Orient Express editor Anne V. Coates (as one of Howard Hughes' film editors).
'The Aviator' movie synopsis
Having finished his bath, the boy Howard Hughes (Jacob Davich) is being dried by his seemingly off-kilter mom. She wants to make sure he can spell the word “quarantine.”
Cut to the late 1920s. Howard Hughes is now a wealthy young Texan (Leonardo DiCaprio) – thanks to his deceased father's money – living in Hollywood while directing the World War I aviation drama Hell's Angels. When Hughes decides to shoot a spectacular air fight sequence, he does his own stunts up there in the sky.
High-pitch-voiced ladies' man
Fearless in the air, Hughes is also fearless on the ground – at least as far as women are concerned. He picks up waitresses and actresses with equal aplomb, or lack thereof, considering his high-pitched voice that is made even more grating by a nasal Southern twang. The women, however, don't seem to mind. Hughes is both boyish and filthy rich, and a dashing aviator, to boot.
Film star Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) is one of the women who are enchanted by Hughes' daring. They play golf together, eat together, fly together, and presumably do together those other things that lovers do – despite the inconvenience that Hughes has developed an aversion to being touched by anyone for fear of catching germs.
Yet Hughes is not averse at risking his life in other ways, as he becomes a record-smashing flying ace. He also gets TWA off the ground much to the dismay of rival Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), the head of Pan Am.
Censorship + planes & actresses
When World War II begins, the aviator/filmmaker Hughes is busy fighting the film censorship board in order to release his outrageous Western The Outlaw, all the while working at the helm of his ever-growing business empire. One of his major clients is the U.S. government, for whom Hughes promises millions worth of military goods.
And of course, his life is also filled with women such as actresses Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner), with whom the ever more peculiar billionaire has simultaneous affairs.
In the late 1940s, a horrific plane crash leaves Howard Hughes in a state of shock. The dashing risk-taker starts going bonkers and becomes a recluse, but he is eventually saved by none other than Ava Gardner, who gives him a really clean shave.
At that time, a major battle erupts between Pan Am, represented by corrupt Republican senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), and the Hughes empire, represented by Hughes himself. The senator accuses the aviator of having cheated the U.S. government; the go-getting Hughes must now defend himself or face ruin.
Images of The Aviator movie with Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn: Miramax / Warner Bros.
The Aviator trailer: Miramax / Warner Bros.
The Aviator movie cast info via the IMDb.