Martin Scorsese hasn't crafted a thematically viable string of images since 1997's Kundun nor a dramatically satisfying narrative since 1995's Casino. He's in a sort of visually innovative rut, making films one admires but has a hard time caring about.
Surface beautiful as all get-out, The Aviator finds Scorsese still unable (or is it disinclined?) to merge his image-making and storytelling skills. In limning the first four decades of the life of drill-bit-magnate turned moviemaker, aviation pioneer and all-American crazy Howard Hughes (a game but somewhat monotonous Leonardo DiCaprio), Scorsese serves up razzle-dazzle of the highest order all in support of an enigma. We get simulations of early two- and three-strip Technicolor processes, amazing miniatures, OK CGI and avant-garde sound-and-picture disjunctures that are pure '60s New York. What we don't get is a sense of why we should care for Hughes, aside from pitying his slow plummet into obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The Aviator's most successful section is its first act, which takes place during the three-year filming of Hughes' Hell's Angels (1930) and is presented in the simple style of the time. Cate Blanchett steals the show as a convincing simulacrum of Hughes' true love, Katharine Hepburn. (The main stars are supported by a secondary cast that's a face-spotting delight: John C. Reilly appears as Hughes' accountant, and there are cameos by Willem Dafoe, Gwen Stefani, Rufus Wainwright and the voraciously omnipresent Jude Law.) In between tussles and rows with Hepburn, Hughes hits the Hollywood big time, designs planes, breaks world air speed records and starts a rivalry with Pan Am exec Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin). After dalliances with underage femmes, he falls out with Hepburn and starts losing it in a major way washing his hands until they bleed, complaining of hallucinations, etc. Hooking up with a haughty, remote Ava Gardner (a bafflingly inappropriate Kate Beckinsale) helps not one bit.
Meanwhile, Trippe uses a corrupt Maine senator (Alan Alda) to destroy Hughes' reputation in order to gain a monopoly on the passenger-airline business. Though we've just seen the latter babbling incoherently while collecting (beautifully lit) bottles of his urine, Hughes manages some righteous monologues in front of a senate subcommittee (shades of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). The film's finale offers us little more to do than contemplate Hughes' later days wasting away while watching Ice Station Zebra a zillion times in isolation.
Biopics are always a series of guesses and interpretations; taking the interpretive Fifth Amendment is no virtue. (One wonders, for example, why the film opens with a boyhood Hughes being instructed by his Mom on the spelling of the word "quarantine.") What most engages Scorsese is the execution of his wonderful images: a silver deco plane slicing through a startling blue sky; black-and-white film images flickering over Hughes' scarred body; close-ups of feet crushing spent flashbulbs. One could randomly pull any frame and end up with something suitable for, um, framing. But the pictures don't support the story or characters they are the story. Scorsese seems to want to make his version of "pure" cinema while staying within the boundaries of marketable narrative film. Instead, The Aviator suggests he might want to think of choosing one or the other.