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Scorsese’s ‘bioepic’ brings eccentric millionaire to life

Brian Doxtader | Monday, January 17, 2005

There is a sequence almost two hours into Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” that is startling, explosive, harrowing and even a little emotional. It is everything that we hope for in film from the man who brought us “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver.” While the rest of the film doesn’t quite reach the grandiose heights of a few key scenes, The Aviator is a majestically artistic and ambitious statement in an age where the word “epic” has come to mean turgidly pretentious Hollywood productions like “Pearl Harbor” or “Alexander.””The Aviator” is the story of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio): film producer, aviation giant, Hollywood playboy and all-around eccentric. The film begins in an expository flashback which attempts to explain some of Hughes’ later oddities. It then flash-forwards to 1927 and the set of “Hell’s Angels,” a film that Hughes produced and co-directed. The film follows Hughes’ glory days over a two decade period, from the late 1920s to the late 1940s, noticeably ignoring the hermetic drug-filled conclusion of his life. In its wide scope, there are interesting touches, like the appearance of legendary Hollywood luminaries Errol Flynn (played by Jude Law, hamming it up to perfection), Louis B. Mayer (the last M in MGM), and Jean Harlow (played by No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani).The acting is all top-notch. DiCaprio turns in one of the best performances of his career, invoking Hughes with an adventurousness and restlessness that he adroitly couples with the mogul’s eventual drift into madness. The real stars, however, are the supporting roles, which play out as a “who’s who” of contemporary Hollywood. Cate Blanchett has “Oscar-nomination” written all over her with a stunningly accurate portrayal of Katherine Hepburn. She transcends cheap imitation into a full-bodied performance that allows the audience to accept that she is attempting to play, arguably, the most famous actress of all time. Kate Beckinsale acquits herself surprisingly well as Ava Gardner, Ian Holm adds some nice comic relief as Professor Fitz and John C. Reilly is predictably dependable as Noah Dietrich, Hughes’ financial advisor. Scorsese remains a master of his art. He packs his scenes with vitality and chooses his shots carefully, with an uncanny knack for composition, editing and cinematography. “The Aviator” is a beautiful film, perhaps the best looking film of the year, with wide shots of airplane fields, crowds of people and soaring vistas. Thankfully, Scorsese also manages to shift between intimate and epic with relative ease, giving “The Aviator” a much better flow and emotional weight than might be expected from such a wide-reaching biopic. There are, of course, moments that rival the director’s best work, in particular the late-film plane crash that remains the film’s biggest highlight.Still, the film is not perfect. Too much is made of Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder, and parts of his life are over-dramatized almost to the point of melodrama. These elements add a darkly sinister undercurrent to the film and undercut its intentions. Thus, The Aviator often uncomfortably straddles its commercial ambitions with the darker sensibilities of its director.Despite these caveats, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is still one of the best films of the year. Howard Hughes is an interesting man in this broad character-study, and for the most part, the film works. While it may not rival the best work of the director’s storied career, he still inflects the film with a humanity and power that is increasingly rare in Hollywood.