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Monday, December 20, 2004
AVIATOR: THE SPRUCE GOOSE OF 2004

"So, I guess Jude Law got left on the cutting room floor?" My twenty-something friend wondered the question aloud as we staggered out of the theater last night with a few hundred other staggering wonderers. We were leaving the three hour experience of Scorcese's highly-anticipated The Aviator plus trailers.

"Huh?" I replied, pithily.

He came back, "Wasn't Jude Law supposed to do a cameo as Errol Flynn in the movie?"

Wondering if this was a trick question, or else still brain-numb from the film, I said slowly, "He did. It was one of the three or four scenes set in The Coconut Grove. The only reason for the scene was to showcase Law's cameo....Where were you?"

He shrugged shamefacedly. "Well, I dozed off for about fifteen minutes, I think."

Oh well. Here it is, the morning after the latest disappointment from Martin Scorcese. The Aviator showcases the director's fabulous cinematic eye, but also his pathological inability to flesh out a satisfying narrative. The audience leaves feeling like it must have missed something - "How can so many fabulous frames amount to so very little in the end?"

To be fair, this film is nowhere as bad as the offensive, blood-soaked mess of Scorcese's last epic disappointment, Gangs of NY. That film was violating along with being tedious and disappointing. The Aviator is just tedious.

The film suffers from the fact there is too much material in the movie for a movie. This is a different problem these days. Most of the films that are getting made suffer from having not enough story for a short-film, that is still stretched torturously through two hours - or, as in Sideways stretched into 2.4 hours... In this case, Howard Hughes' life should most properly be done in an eight-hour mini-series. That is, as long as somebody can figure out the real cinematic story in the man's many true stories.

So, like many movies based on "strange, but true" stories, the principal flaw in The Aviator is that the inner drama is neglected - completely overwhelmed actually - by the external drama.

Don't be fooled by the fact that Scorcese gives LOTS of time to Howard Husghes' struggle with encroaching insanity. He does so - but without any insight. There isn't any "why?" to what should have been the movie's main question: Not, "why insanity?", but "why isolation in one's insanity?" The director spent way too much time wallowing in how insanity feels and acts. The main question I wanted to see addressed, was, how come a person with so much talent, treasure and vision, ends up alone, drowning in their own filth?

The answer probably has to do with isolation being the wages of narcissism. But, I have no confidence that a baby-boomer director can take on that subject objectively.

Have to mention the amazing performance of Cate Blanchett here. She channels Kate Hepburn in such a way that the audience kept laughing out loud in sheer delight. Her scenes with DiCaprio looked most like an acting clinic, with the out-of-his-league Leo feeding lines into the stupendous acting machine of Blanchett. Hers was a wonderful performance, even as the character suffered from the same lack of help in the script that scuttled the main story. Hepburn's character, as scripted, seems to be in the movie, well, to be in the movie. But the whole delightful sub-plot could be cut and the film would be just as thematically barren. (I trust I make myself obscure...)

Alan Alda started well as the smarmy corrupt Senator, but then he degenerated into a bad television character who implausibly collapses into befuddled stuttering before the plain-spoken brilliance of the, well, severely bi-polar, manically depressed and hallucinating Howard Hughes character. Alec Baldwin also does well in playing corporate creepiness. There's not much for the rest of the talented ensemble to do. John C. Reilly, Jude Law, Kate Beckinsale - really just here to play dress-up in a Hollywood celebration of its own hey-day.

Also have to say that Scorcese's visuals are stunning and lush as always. The scenes of The Coconut Grove were great - frenzied and claustrophibic opulence. The scene of the filming of Hell's Angels was exhilerating and breathless. The long sequence of nude Leo/Howard locked in his self-made insane asylum/movie theater, was cool to watch, but didn't amount to much.

In the end, I was just kind of sad - again - that Scorcese never found a partner to work with who understands good storytelling. He needs someone around to nix every other visually interesting scene, for one that has narrative significance. A friend emailed me that Scorcese might never get another major studio budget if this film flops. I actually think that might be good for him...and all of us.

Pass. Just fly-over The Aviator.