The Aviator

January 01, 2005

Martin Scorsese's The Aviator

Random thought of the day: over the last two years, Leonardo DiCaprio has been transformed from the favorite actor of young teenage girls to the quintessential movie star for senior citizens. His main cinematic duty was once to make twelve-year old girls sigh with longing, and is now to make 70-year-old men laugh nostalgically about the world of their youth.

In case you haven't guessed yet, last night Susan and I went to see The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's new biopic about the young Howard Hughes. I don't have a lot to say about the movie, I'm afraid; it was entertaining enough for two hours or so, but it petered out near the end, and I'm not completely sure what the point of making it was. (If Scorsese intended it to have some deep and profound meaning, as I suspect he kind of did, then that meaning completely eluded me.) The story was entertaining enough, gave viewers an evocative portrait of a colorful moment in time, and featured lots of likeable actors in fairly non-taxing roles. It would be silly to call this a great movie, I think, but it was decent enough most of the time.

In general, I found it hard to be terribly judgmental about The Aviator, even when it elicited a strong reaction. The most widely discussed role in the movie, for instance, was Cate Blanchett's performance as Katharine Hepburn--a performance that's won plaudits from most critics. I'm generally a fan of Cate Blanchett, but at first I found her role in The Aviator intensely annoying: she seemed to be impersonating a Hepburn caricature, rather than acting. Then again, I often find Hepburn herself intensely annoying and I think she was often a self-caricature, so perhaps the performance was reasonable enough. (Hepburn was almost completely unwatchable in The Lion in Winter, for example, and I say this as someone who finds the idea of Katharine Hepburn quite appealing.) Luckily, Blanchett's acting became much more restrained and effective as the movie went on.

If I had to make a larger point about Blanchett's performance, it would be this: her role perfectly fit an entertaining enough movie that never seemed completely real. Consider the cast. Cate Blanchett is an acclaimed actress who impersonated a Hollywood icon. Alec Baldwin and John C. Reilly were character actors portraying exactly the characters they always play--a blustery blowhard and a befuddled mook, respectively. Lots of other actors, from Jude Law to Kate Beckinsale, spent their time playing... other actors. Finally, Leonardo DiCaprio's performance had an odd feel, as if you'd never see someone like the man he played anywhere outside a movie. I never find DiCaprio's performances fully real, and this case was no exception. DiCaprio's roles often seem quite different from each other, so it's not quite accurate to say that he always seems like Leonardo DiCaprio when he's on screen. But there's an element of truth to that, just as there's a lot of truth to the idea that DiCaprio always seems to be acting. The result is that his performances always seem slightly odd to me, despite seeming competent enough in most ways.

The audience certainly seemed to love DiCaprio's performance, which brings me back to the idea that started off this review. The theater last night was full of aging couples who seemed to love every moment of the movie. I haven't seen a crowd so gray in quite a while--in fact, since I saw Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can two years ago. DiCaprio's days as a sex symbol may be limited. I'm not convinced that he has what it takes to be a great actor who works for serious directors, which seems to be his current goal. But if his last few performances are any indication, he'll always have a job making old people laugh!

Tangential update: The more I think about it, the more similarities I can see between Catch Me If You Can and The Aviator. Both have a nostalgic feel, with a sense of humor likely to appeal most to viewers over 50. Both of them have a slightly nostalgic look and deal with somewhat nostalgic themes--including, not surprisingly, aviation. (If memory serves, DiCaprio's character pretends to be an airline pilot and spends lots of time hanging out in airports in Catch Me if You Can.) Both movies have an all-American, optimistic message, and both are most successful when they have no aspirations beyond entertaining the public. The Aviator is least successful when it tries to look at Howard Hughes's relationship with his mother, just as Catch Me if You Can becomes less convincing when it tries to delve into the psyche of its protagonist.

Posted by Ed at January 1, 2005 05:09 PM

Dear Martin Scorsese,

I have a great idea for a movie! You be the judge!
Let me know how soon you would like to review the script! Only the best should direct it!

It will change your life and the world! Congrats on the latest film: Avaitor

Posted by: Jeffrey L Garland at January 16, 2005 09:32 PM
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