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'Aviator' Feels Like Autopilot

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page WE34

WITH EACH PASSING day since I've seen "The Aviator," the movie gets worse and worse. So I'd better write this in a hurry, while I still think of Martin Scorsese's production as a C-plus affair -- good enough to register what it means to do, but not nearly adroit enough to pull it off.

Here's what "The Aviator" means to do: duplicate the elusive magic of "Citizen Kane." Instead of then-dashing Orson Welles (who was 25 at the time) as a fictionalized, larger-than-life version of William Randolph Hearst, Scorsese's film has Leonardo DiCaprio (now 30, can you believe?) as a romantically impulsive Howard Hughes.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator." (Miramax Films)

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A firebrand of chutzpah, derring-do and imagination -- fortified, of course, by millions of dollars -- he follows his whims as a movie mogul (of RKO Pictures), aviation pioneer and, increasingly, a paranoid obsessive struggling with many psychological demons. (This is between the 1920s and the late 1940s.) But he's heroic at every turn: designing, building and personally flying bigger and better aircraft, and refusing to be intimidated by such powerful enemies as Hollywood's film censors, MGM's Louis B. Mayer (Stanley DeSantis), Pan American Airways head Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), and the demagogic Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), and hardly blinking an eye as his operating budgets rise by tens of millions.

In "Kane," director Welles broke all the known "rules" of moviemaking, in terms of editing, camerawork, lighting and you name it. For his pains, the film became one of America's true originals. And as the central figure, Charles Foster Kane, Welles was a powerful presence.

"The Aviator," scripted by John Logan, follows all the rules of Hollywood: big stars, promiscuous use of computer-generated imagery, and more emphasis on advertising and publicity than story development. There's a top-of-the-line emptiness about the whole thing. And even though DiCaprio does his gimlet-eyed damnedest to own this movie, he's more energetic than charismatic.

He's not Howard Hughes, whose heroin addiction, bisexuality, predatory taste for women, dereliction and paranoia are either nowhere to be found or cutified for Best Picture respectability. (His frenzied hand-washing, based on a lifelong fear of infection, is given full throttle, however.) He doesn't even seem like a grown-up, despite his age. And that Texas accent seems to come and go.

To be fair, DiCaprio awakens in the final, darker section. Without giving too much away, there's an emotional conclusion that rings of Scorsese's "Raging Bull," in terms of dark, human texture. It's as if Scorsese suddenly remembers his earlier, better films. But just as soon as we get to the good stuff, poof! the movie is done. (Be honest: Aren't we watching this to watch the guy completely lose it? Hughes's demise reassures many of us that ridiculous wealth messes people up and shouldn't even be coveted.)

Alda is memorably weaselly as the senator who starts an investigation into Hughes's purported mismanagement of government funds for aircraft during the war years, and Baldwin makes (as always) a wonderfully slimy opponent as Trippe. But as Katharine Hepburn, one of several actresses who came into Hughes's life, Cate Blanchett is so wrongly cast it's almost campily intriguing to watch her mannered failings. Kate Beckinsale, who plays Ava Gardner (another Hughes lover) is bright and peppy, but nothing more. The same goes for John C. Reilly as Hughes factotum Noah Dietrich, who's essentially the movie's head-shaker and note-taker.

The best moments in "The Aviator" are the big set pieces with CGI effects, such as Hughes's first-time launching of the oversize flying boat the Spruce Goose out of Long Beach Harbor, and a stunner of a crash landing in which Hughes jockey-rides a failing plane as it fish-bellies through a suburban neighborhood and makes an incendiary final stop. Unfortunately, the gee-whiz aspect takes over the human story. We may enjoy watching the spectacles, but we don't much care for, or even have a feeling for, the guy in the cockpit.

THE AVIATOR (PG-13, 169 minutes) -- Contains sexual scenes, nudity, obscenity and a gruesome crash landing. Opens Saturday. Area theaters.

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