Martin Scorsese's The Aviator is a fun, frenetic, visually dazzling take on a large slice of the life of Howard Hughes that carries us up to 20,000 feet but doesn't get a millimeter beneath the surface of his characters. As such, the film works as genuine if superficial entertainment of the holiday kind, and box-office numbers should initially bring good cheer to all involved.
Structurally, the film is pretty straightforward, after kicking off with a strange, enigmatic and thankfully short scene that has the young Hughes being bathed. Jump to 1927 when Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), now orphaned and running the family business Hughes Tools, is spending his millions recklessly on the production of the war film Hell's Angels.
On his airfield, Hughes hires Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly), who will become his longtime aide. Hughes shows off to Dietrich his vast field of planes, bragging that it's the largest private air force in the world. This is the first of many eye-popping scenes of kinetic motion and startling special effects that Scorsese and his team deliver throughout.
Hughes spends years making Hell's Angels, which becomes a success. He hangs with stars like Jean Harlow and Faith Domergue and with the occasional cigarette girl and regularly frequents hot spots like the Ambassador Hotel's Cocoanut Grove with his crew, including press agent Johnny Meyer (Adam Scott). He begins a significant affair with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), but the relationship turns cold after a visit to the Hepburn compound, where the voluble family has little patience for Hughes' chatter about aeronautics or his down-home Texas demeanor.
Hughes, revealed early on to be obsessed with hygiene, begins to experience bouts of mental illness. But during normal spells, he fires on all burners and becomes involved with Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), who, like Hepburn, is very much her own person.
Considerable screen time is spent on Hughes' involvement in his number-one passion: improving aviation. He confers with loyal engineer Glenn "Odie" Odekirk (Matt Ross) and the questionably useful Professor Fitz (Ian Holm) in his efforts to push aeronautics further in terms of speed, altitude and carrier size. Hughes has to be admired: He performs many of his key experiments. But he's not understood, because he is presented as no more than the sum of his actions.
The Aviator does become interesting in its treatment of Hughes' rivalry with Pan Am and its charismatic head Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and his tangles with the government. Venal Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), somehow colluding with Trippe, is determined to facilitate through legislation the designation of Pan Am as the United States' sole international carrier. During this ordeal, Hughes experiences his worst bouts of mental illness, which in one instance has him vegetate-filthy, unshaven, delusional-as a recluse in the company offices.
DiCaprio has a convincing Texas twang and turns up the charisma to deliver an easy-to-watch Hughes. Blanchett is all mannerisms as Kate, but this is not the vehicle to explore other shadings. Supporting roles are all serviceable, with Alda a notch above as the suspect senator.
Soaring high on production values, The Aviator ultimately runs on empty, giving filmgoers a visually powerful outing but leaving little else for them to take home. Yes, Scorsese piles on the glamorous settings and costumes, including sumptuously recreated Hollywood haunts, and fantastic action scenes including the skyward fighter planes of Hell's Angels and the terrifying L.A. crash that nearly ended Hughes' life. But the film gives us no one to care about. DiCaprio's portrayal of Hughes, interesting to watch as an actorly tour de force, is nevertheless one-dimensional. Exploiting hardware in every sense of the word, The Aviator is a good ride only while it's happening.