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Scorsese’s film takes flight

DAN THOMASsummit daily news
Dan Thomas
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The plight of the Hercules cargo plane not only figures prominently in Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic, “The Aviator,” but also makes for an apt analogy.”The Aviator” gave me the distinct feeling that it was what Scorsese’s Christmas movie two years ago, “Gangs of New York,” was supposed to be. And if Hughes had a Spruce Goose, it was “Gangs,” an ungainly idea that languished out of sight, but never out of mind, until it simply got too big not to make. When he finally pushed it through, it bore all the markings of a beloved pet project: lavish sets, big ideas and big stars, but no overarching point other than the fact Scorcese really wanted to make it.

So, for all the noble effort and great reviews, “Gangs” never really took flight, gagging on its own weight.In contrast, “The Aviator” occasionally makes things too simple in the interest of streamlining. But it rolls off Scorsese’s assembly line ready for takeoff, and – like Hughes’ flying boat – it’s surprisingly spry. Once airborne, it fairly flies by – no easy task for a two-hour-plus American history lesson.Scorcese begins the movie by tracing – a little too closely – Hughes’ famous fear of germs to a childhood incident that also sets the stage for Leonardo DiCaprio to wrestle with some of the tycoon’s other famous eccentricities.

Though it cuts to the quick, ultimately oversimplifying one of the great enigmas of the last century, all that streamlining is necessary just to get this behemoth of a movie moving.Playing a genius engineer, tycoon, Hollywood player and recluse who probably had either obsessive-compulsive disorder or Tourette’s seems daunting even with all the simplification. But the role allows DiCaprio to strap on some Texas bluntness and an accent he picked up at the Perot ’04 campaign’s going-out-of-business sale and flourish.Hughes’ character allows much more of DiCaprio’s charm to shine through than when he carried the weight of every 19th-century Catholic immigrant on his back in “Gangs.”

A period piece with so many small parts and cameos certainly creates the risk of coming off like a bunch of actors playing dress-up. But DiCaprio shines as the young, daring Hughes in his interactions with Pan-Am airlines chief Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and lover Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett).When “The Aviator” tries to get deep, it starts losing altitude. The streamlining that launched the plot makes the tantalizing prospect of Hughes’ descent into insanity seem facile. By the same logic, DiCaprio makes such a believable millionaire flyboy, it’s hard to recast him mentally as the Howard Hughes who emerged from obsessive-compulsive metamorphosis a changed man.Still, if “The Aviator” feels a little shallow and moves a little too fast, that’s quite an accomplishment for a film of its breadth and scope.


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