Chock-full of period glamour and notable performances, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is breezier and better than the last Marty-Leo outing — it seems both lighter of foot and more self-assured (and, for that matter, more historically accurate) than the plodding, heavy-handed Gangs of New York. That being said, I did find myself wishing at various points in the second and third hours that Scorsese had taken a page from Howard Hughes and found a way to get from TWA to OCD more quickly. Well worth seeing and consistently entertaining, The Aviator is also (like many Scorsese films) probably 15-20 minutes too long.
Arguably the goofiest scene in the film is in the opening moments, as we see the child Hughes being bathed by his mother and forced to spell Q-U-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-E…it plays like exactly the same type of ham-handed Freudian shorthand that so marred Alexander a couple of weeks ago. But, soon thereafter, the movie jumps to 1927 and the set of Hell’s Angels, and The Aviator settles into cruising altitude. Watching Hughes indulge his passions for fast planes and starlets against a backdrop of New Era glitz is great fun…at times, the movie even feels like Oceans’ One or Two, with Jean Harlow, Kate Hepburn, Errol Flynn, and Ava Gardner all holding court in Old Hollywood.
Only later in the film, when the madness begins to come upon Hughes and the interminable handwashing begins, does one start to feel the drag. I found myself looking at my watch long before Hughes begins finding unsavory uses for milk bottles. Still, despite the turbulence, The Aviator is kept aloft through the compulsive years by a number of solid performances, including (but not limited to) Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner (Surprisingly after drek like Van Helsing and Underworld, she’s pretty good here), Matt Ross as Hughes’ long-suffering aeronautics #2 Glenn Odekirk, Alec Baldwin as Pan Am head/Hughes rival Juan Trippe, and Alan Alda as the unctuous anti-Hawkeye, Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster. (di Caprio, for his part, is excellent throughout.) And, flying head and shoulders above them all is Cate Blanchett’s uncanny turn as young Katherine Hepburn. Alive, acerbic, and adorable, Blanchett’s Hepburn walks away with every scene she’s in, and the film misses her dearly after her second act exit. (Damn you, Tracy.) With a gal like Cate’s Kate by his side, it’s little wonder Hughes found a way, however briefly, to soar amongst the clouds.