Monday, March 28, 2005


The Aviator. Or, even eccentric billionaire daredevil playboys can be dull, dull, dull, dull, dull, or at least have dull movies made about them.

Before I walked into this movie, I just didn't give a rodent's backside about Howard Hughes. Three hours later, I still didn't.

I admit I didn't know much about him going in. According to this movie, he was some kind of unholy mix of Ted Turner and Evel Knievel, as conjured up by Ayn Rand.

During the interminable third act of this overblown "Biography" episode, HH explains to a Congressional subcommittee that he loooooooooves aviation, it's what drives him, motivates him, it's all he cares about, his one true mistress, etc. etc.


OK. I mean, yeah, sure, he flew some planes in the movie and so forth, but until that big speech, I wouldn't have guessed that.

I know this is unfair, but in Goodfellas, did Henry Hill (another HH) have to explain why he loved being a gangster? OK, well, I mean, he did ("to me being a gangster was better than being president of the United States..."), but he didn't really have to. We could see it on the screen.

Why did Scorsese make this movie? Or, looking at it the other way, why did it have to be Scorsese making this movie? What did he bring to it besides technical competence and the ability to attract a top notch cast? (Jude Law as Errol Flynn, har!) There's less Marty in this movie than anything I've seen by him except maybe The Color of Money. Yes, even less than Cape Fear. It's strictly a contractor for hire job.

So here's the enfant terrible of the Jazz Age, making big movies with big boobies, flying (and crashing) big fast loud airplanes, dating glamorous Hollywood starlets, throwing money around like tickertape confetti, and peeing in milk bottles, so, of course, the last third of the movie is about everyone's favorite dramatic topic: arcane parliamentary procedure! I swear, some of the dialogue about Senator Jibjab's rider to the amendment to the subcommittee's draft legislation favoring Corporation X over Federation Y was lifted straight out of The Phantom Menace. Just 'cause some people watch C-Span doesn't mean it'll play on the silver screen. Yeah, sure, riveting Congressional testimony sorta worked in The Godfather II, but pretty soon it was back to Fredo having a banana daiquiri and Vito DeNiro stabbing guys in the gut.

The performances...OK, first, the soon-to-be-legendary: Alec Baldwin's delivery of his final line was one of the funniest and most sublime things I've seen in a looooooooong time. I want to hate him, but he keeps showing up in these quirky little roles and knocking them out of the park. This goes right up there with his famous opening rant in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Cate Blanchett, Katharine Hepburn. Walking -- no, teetering on -- the line between breathtaking reconstruction of an image derived from seven thousand comedies of manners, and descending slowly into Martin Short cataloguing a few trite mannerisms. It's a dirty job, but I guess someone had to do it. And again I ask, whatever happened to Judy Davis?

Jude Law as Errol Flynn. Why not? (Anybody out there remember that in Taxi Driver, Doughboy tried to sell Travis a piece of Errol Flynn's bath tub?)

Alan Alda. Who would have guessed? I liked his underplayed style, very matter of fact. There was quite a bit of that throughout the movie, including the press agent guy and John C. Reilly as HH's accountant. Too many of these movies have the secondary characters standing around reacting to the evident genius of the title character. (See e.g., Marcia Gay Harden's infamous, "You've done it, Pollock, you've cracked it wide open.") This mostly avoided that trap.

Kate Beckinsale was terrible as Ava Gardner.

DiCaprio was OK, I guess, but I would've liked to see somebody fundamentally weirder in the role. Tim Robbins maybe, or Gary Sinise. Billy Bob Thornton? Maybe not. Willem Dafoe...nah. (He showed up in a bit part here.) Strangely enough, I thought the perpetually boyish looking Leonardo was more effective as the puffy, scruffy, older, threatened HH than as the dashing young playboy director of Hell's Angels, even though I kept waiting for him to call the other Doors in to make "L.A. Woman" before dying in a bath tub (bath tub again!) in Paris. (Val Kilmer as HH? Hmmm...) It would've been cool if, after he got the Spruce Goose to fly, he had landed it back in the water, stood up at the front and shouted, "I'm the king of the world!" Maybe on the DVD version...

So why did this guy deserve to have a movie made about his life? He had a lot of money, but so does, I don't know, Steve Forbes. Was he a great businessman? He was successful. But what principles can we learn from him? At least according to this movie, his answer to every problem was to tell a suprisingly sedate John C. Reilly something along the lines of Spend More Money. Nice work if you can get it! I like the part where he said only one percent of the American public had ever been in a plane, and attributed it to their fear of turbulence. Uh, gee, Howie, it's like 1933 or something...maybe THE DEPRESSION has something to do with it? Still, there's no denying he was a visionary and a champion for aviation in its early days. But, really, are we all flying around in giant wooden seaplanes with 4 propellers? Does the Army even use stuff like that? Do we care that Pan Am didn't destroy TWA? Is TWA even still in business? In the last scene, Hughes told his tech guys to look into jet engines ("The wave of the future!"), but whatever he did with them got left out of the movie. Again, maybe on the DVD. So, is Scorsese to blame for the fundamental dullness of this story, or is Howard Hughes?

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