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The Aviator

A Choppy Flight…

Martin Scorsese's latest magnum opus is a biopic about the aviation pioneer, billionaire and eccentric, Howard Hughes. One of Hughes' most outrageous ideas was the 'Hercules', essentially a flying aircraft carrier. The press affectionately referred to Hughes' albatross as the 'spruce goose'. It was a brilliant, enormous and ultimately only marginally successful undertaking. One could describe The Aviator in the same way.

While not as challenging to sit through as Scorsese's previous epic period piece Gangs of New York, The Aviator is bloated at three hours and the pacing of the film is uneven. Part of this may simply be part and parcel in filming a biopic, which does not necessarily follow a conventional narrative structure.

There are brilliant and engaging stretches that are a joy to view in The Aviator. Hughes's attempts to complete the most expensive and technically complex film of all time, Hell's Angels, is riveting. However, there is no clear escalation of dramatic tension that builds to a climax. Rather, there are a series of mini-climaxes and plateaus as we see Hughes conquer the latest obstacle, fall into an abyss of despair after breaking up with Katherine Hepburn (played skillfully by Cate Blanchett), and see him rise again…only to fall victim to his own foibles yet again. While this may be historically accurate, it doesn't work so well on screen.

Hughes is unquestionably a fascinating character. But, one of the major problems with The Aviator is the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. Few would argue that DiCaprio is pretty to look at and possesses a certain smug and smarmy appeal that clearly resonates with legions of filmgoers. However, DiCaprio simply does not possess the acting chops to pull off a character as complex and as eccentric as Howard Hughes. Complicating matters is DiCaprio's youthful appearance. He looks like he's sixteen years old (despite the fact that he's thirty) and spends much of the film hobnobbing with entrepreneurs who appear to be easily twice his age. It's not believable. A better option might have been Jude Law (who has a brief cameo as Errol Flynn). The camera loves him as much if not more than DiCaprio, Law can act, and the casting of Law would have been a bit more age appropriate. Not to mention there simply have not been enough Jude Law films released this year.

Scorsese does succeed in lending an air of believability to The Aviator in his vivid recreation of the time period during which the film transpires (mid-1920's through the 1940's). One of Hughes' favorite haunts, The Coconaut Grove is resplendent with showgirls swinging from the ceiling, big bands belting out vibrant tunes, and décor that evokes the glamour and decadence of the era. The Aviator is unarguably a visually amazing film.

Unfortunately, The Aviator lacks the components to ascend to greatness. In the hands of a less gifted director, it's likely The Aviator would have crashed and burned. As it is, the film barely gets off the ground and provides a flight that is entertaining at times, but choppy.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5