What you get in Ihe Aviator is a big, juicy, gorgeous, high-flying epic that spins through the early life (1927-47) of Texas tycoon Howard Hughes, the hotshot pilot, aviation pioneer, junior movie mogul and boob-crazed seducer whose obsessive-compulsive disorders left him a germaphobic hermit, holed up naked with vials of his own urine. What you don't get in The Aviator is a Martin Scorsese film cut from his own dark obsessions (he took on the project late, when Michael Mann dropped out). The clowns who hated Scorsese's brutal, brilliant Gangs of New York will no doubt hail the crowd-pleasing, digitally enhanced PG-13 Aviator and prod Academy members to dole out his overdue Oscar.
Sheesh. The good news is that when Scorsese does connect with key moments in the deft script by John Logan (Gladiator), he makes magic. Casting the still-boyish Leonardo DiCaprio, 30, to play Hughes into his forties was a risk (Johnny Depp could have better nailed the dangerous, seductive pathology). That said, DiCaprio gives a turbocharged, ready-to-rock performance. He and Scorsese delight in the scenes of Hughes directing 1930's Hell's Angels, still a landmark aerial spectacle, and obsessing in the editing room. Hughes brings the same fixation to engineering a bra for Jane Russell as he does to setting speed records, creating TWA and fighting Pan Am's Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin in top form) and his Senate flunky Ralph Brewster (sleazed to perfection by Alan Alda) for a piece of international air travel.
Stunningly shot by Robert Richardson (Kill Bill), the film hits a scary, thrilling high with Hughes' 1946 test flight of the XF-11, which ends with him crashing in Beverly Hills and sustaining injuries that worsen his mental disorders.
Oddly, it's the sexual fireworks that fizzle. Gwen Stefani does a mere walk-on as Jean Harlow. An underwritten part stalls sassy Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner. And Cate Blanchett almost blows it as Katharine Hepburn with an initially broad parody of the great Kate. But as the film progresses, she warms up the role with subtlety and grace. Standing near Hughes' locked door, cajoling him back to normalcy, Blanchett is funny, tender and heartbreaking.
The Aviator is very much like the climactic scene of the visionary Hughes battling to get his biggest plane, the ungainly Spruce Goose, off the damn ground. It's a major struggle. But when it flies, it soars.