In this new movie from Martin Scorsese (THE KING OF COMEDY), Scorsese’s young companion Leonardo Dicaprio plays an aviator. I was surprised to find that it was not just any aviator he was playing, it was actually Howard Hughes, the famous rich guy who peed in jars, wore kleenex boxes for shoes, etc. It turns out he not only grew his fingernails long and made a giant plane, he also was a movie director and producer. Which is probaly why Scorsese is interested in him.
After a brief origin story (explaining how a childhood incident led to his obsessive compulsive powers) the movie starts out with young rich boy Hughes, having inherited his parents’s drillbit company, making the world war one flying ace movie HELL’S ANGELS. He actually bought “the world’s largest private air force” and after years of disastrous (3 fatalities, 3 million dollars spent) shooting made a movie with the most spectacular aerial scenes ever produced (I guess. I haven’t really seen it. I am a phoney). THE AVIATOR gets alot of entertainment mileage out of portraying him as this crazy rich boy with a vision. Everybody thinks he’s nuts including his right hand man John C. Reilly. But he’s gonna spend his money how he wants to and he’s gonna make a god damn movie. This part of the movie I was thinking it reminded me a little bit of that movie where Johnny Depp plays Ed Wood. Then all the sudden Howard goes to ask a favor from Mr. Mayer of MGM… and it’s the same fuckin guy that Ed Wood tried to get a movie deal from! Same exact dude. Plus both movies have a score by Howard Shore. It’s like all the stars are lining up or something. There is no significance to it though in my opinion. Let’s get off of this tangent I guess.
Anyway there are some amazing digitally enhanced shots of DiCaprio flying through the air in a plane, holding a movie camera, waving his arms around to direct the swarms of dogfighters swooping all around him. It really makes Howard Hughes seem like a mad genius and then you start to wonder – how the fuck did the director of MEAN STREETS and RAGING BULL end up bowing at the altar of the godfather of the hulking, soul-less Hollywood spectacle? I know I know, independent maverick filmmaker, etc., but still the whole point of HELL’S ANGELES is its HUGENESS and the seeming impossibility of making a movie like that. It can’t be about the characters since they recast the lead after a couple years of filming. So why is Scorsese so fond of this?
Then there is a scene in the Coconut Grove restaraunt, with a big band playing, hundreds of extras dining and dancing, and a big fancy crane shot as Jude Law playing Errol Flynn gets in a stagey Hollywood restaraunt brawl. And then I realized oh yeah, because that’s what Scorsese makes now is big, fancy, expensive, detailed historical epic spectacles. But he makes ’em damn good.
I’ll be honest, I don’t really know what all to say about a movie like this, except that it’s good. I mean it better fuckin be, they put this much work into a movie, and in this case it is. It gets you real involved in the character and rooting for him and only later trying to figure out what he symbolizes. I am one of the rare American individuals who is neutral on Leo D’Caprio. I don’t hate him like most men do but I don’t like everything he does. But I will say that this is probaly his most impressive performance. He makes this bottle-pee-er charming at times but also very haunted and weird. Most of the movie he’s got these scary hungry like the wolf eyes, he looks like Benicio of the Bull. I really like the way they portray his weird interactions with other people. He is in this world of rich CEOs and Hollywood heartthrobs, but he has no social skills. And they gotta put up with it because he’s rich and famous. He has these conversations where he gives one word answers or seems like he doesn’t even know anybody is talking to him. And that’s before he starts going nuts and repeating the same phrases over and over.
And they don’t hammer on the obsessive compulsive thing too hard, at least not in the dialogue. It’s almost all shown visually. He doesn’t talk about that he has a special fork for measuring the size of his pees, they just show it sitting there. And then you see the look on his face when that fucking mustachioed slob Errol Flynn has the nerve to put his grubby swashbuckler mitts on Howard’s god damn dinner plate. Ruining everything. Thanks alot Errol Flynn, you asshole.
And they don’t have him say, “Katherine Hepburn, you mean so much to me that I will drink out of the same milk bottle as you, despite my crippling paranoid fear of germs.” They just show him doing it and let you do the math. Not bad.
One small problem I had with the movie though was Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn, who is his girlfriend for most of the movie. Most people seem to like her performance and she probaly has a good shot at an Oscar for it but I thought she was a little over the top at times. When they introduce her she goes golfing with Howard and she’s just obnoxious, spitting out a hundred wacky Hepburnisms in a row, never pausing to breathe or let the audience hang themselves. To bring this back to the Ed Wood movie, that one had the guy from MISSION=IMPOSSIBLE playing Bela Lugosi, and he made it both a good celebrity imitation and a sad, beautiful character. This one leans more toward the caricature side. Later on she calms down a bit and seems more like a genuine person, but I couldn’t forget the golf scene. I would never want to be around this horrible, annoying person. I don’t care if she’s Katherine god damn Hepburn, she should go back to her hippie commune family and leave this poor nutball alone. The guy is disabled, he doesn’t need this kind of torment.
By the way I just learned that Audrey Hepburn and Katherine Hepburn were not related. Ain’t that a bitch. How the fuck did that happen? And why doesn’t anybody tell me these things? Well anyway I woulda rather went golfing with Audrey judging from this movie.
Anyway if I had to guess why the movie works (and since I’m reviewing it I sort of do have to) it would be because it’s got the HOLLYWOOD BIOPIC deal (adventurous shooting, cool vintage movie posters, celebrity lookalike cameos, glamorous premieres) combined with the REBELLIOUS MAVERICK BIOPIC deal (doing the impossible, Taking On the System, testifying to congress) but then instead of the usual tragic degeneration into addiction, they have the more interesting degeneration into madness. Sitting naked in a room, rocking a John Walker, or at least a ruggedly handsome Ewan McGregor as Obi Wan look. I mean I’ve seen that drug addiction crap a million times, but I have only seen a handful of movies where a guy lines up about a hundred bottles of pee.
BUT THAT’S NOT ALL! This guy is not just the bottle-pee-er, he’s THE AVIATOR so you also got several thrilling flight scenes including a horrible crash where he crawls out covered in blood, screaming in pain, actually on fire. Now that’s what I want to see in a fuckin Leon De Caprio movie! Pleasing to both men and women. Everybody loves that shit.
You do have some of the usual biography movie problems, like having to throw the next bit of biographical information into the dialogue here and there (Jet engines are gonna be the future!) But they do it much more smoothly than in something like FRIDA and because Howard Hughes is such a weirdo it’s almost believable. And I was happy to see that the movie not only didn’t try to cover his whole life, but didn’t give us text at the end telling us what happened to who and that he died in 1976 of heart failure, etc. They do kind of cheat though I think, I don’t think he really locked himself in a room until he was much older, and then he pretty much stayed there for 20 years. But I don’t really know what I’m talking about so maybe I’m wrong. I guess it’s possible they were even leaving it open for a sequel so 30 years from now DiCaprio can do another one where he is locked in a hotel for 20 years growing his fingernails out.
I wonder if anybody will do a biopic of that dude from the Guiness Book, the photographer with the long curly fingernails on one hand. Maybe he was an unrecognized genius, I bet. Somebody look into that.
Anyway this is not my favorite type of movie, but of this type it is topnotch. I think maybe the climax of GANGS OF NEW YORK was a little more satisfying to me personally, but this one was more involving and entertaining overall. Mainly because although I thought Del Caprio did a pretty good job in the GANGS one, he is much more appropriate for the role. More convincing. And I noticed that not having any U2 music thrown in there seemed to help. Real good music on this one, actually.
I walked out with a strong feeling that DiCaprio would get best actor and the movie would dominate all the other Oscars. That’s not saying much though because I think it’s been a pretty weak year, this type of historic spectacle is the type of shit the Oscars always eat up, and I’m usually wrong about this shit anyway so by my track record it might not even get nominated. Still I gotta say, it was a real good movie so if it wins I will not throw anything at the television, in my opinion.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.