Fly boy

The Aviator balances moments of madness and genius

Howard Hughes, the urine-hoarding, mammary-mad, obsessive-compulsive germ freak, was an eccentric and a pariah after director Martin Scorsese's own heart.

Scorsese's biopic of the record-breaking airman, film director and high-profile hermit, The Aviator, begins with Hughes' (Leonardo DiCaprio) four-year long production of 1930's Hell's Angels and ends three decades later with his victory over the government forces that accused him of war profiteering. In the middle passages, Scorsese covers the making of Hughes' 1943 "sex Western" The Outlaw, a cinematic pedestal for Jane Russell's cleavage, and his creation of the eight-engine flying boat, the Hercules (mockingly referred to as the "Spruce Goose"). Hughes fought the institutions of Hollywood, battled the forces of gravity and kept an impressive number of high-end glamour girls — from Jean Harlow to Ava Gardner — in rotation.

Scorsese is clearly in awe of Hughes' multidimensionality, and his rollicking film keeps viewers balanced on a high-wire between Hughes' breathtaking imagination and pitiful, OCD lows. Acts of creativity take on an almost supernatural dimension in The Aviator. Hughes is able to create film worlds and flying machines bounded only by his imagination. Scorsese marvels with infectious energy at Hughes' transformation from a scrappy Texas kid whose private manias may have been stoked by some seminal icky moment with a Mommy Dearest, to a grown man equally obsessed with the sleek form of a flying machine or a starlet's rump. The girl metaphors fly frequently enough in descriptions of Hughes' aircraft to suggest some obsessions were cross-pollinating. Hughes' investment in planes takes on sexual underpinnings and his investment in women has a weirdly scientific dimension. Scorsese, a bit of a control freak himself who's lived so much of his life through the fantasy world of film, seems to understand how such psychic mix-ups could occur.

While Hughes' heart-in-the-throat aeronautical adventurism jumps off the screen, his carnal flights of fancy are less enthusiastically conveyed. DiCaprio is surprisingly perverse as he feels up a cigarette girl at the Coconut Grove or "interviews" his next girlfriend under a white-hot light, but his sexual co-pilots are less impressive. Kate Beckinsale's Ava Gardner is affected and extraordinarily dull, a far cry from that whisky-voiced force of nature. Cate Blachett, who apparently borrowed Nicole Kidman's ugly makeup from The Hours to play Katherine Hepburn, is typical of The Aviator's propensity for hysterics: She plays a movie version of Hepburn in full screwball mode. DiCaprio, however, displays a blend of narcissistic creepiness and little-boy-lost vulnerability that serves the material well. But even The Aviator's cartoonish dimensions suit the film's old-style vibe. Excess was Hughes' life's blood, and in this film, it is also Scorsese's.

The Aviator is a flawed but incredibly passionate and entertaining film befitting a character as flamboyant as Hughes. More than anything, our empathy for Hughes is governed by Scorsese's simpatico treatment. Scorsese seems to appreciate how Hughes' genius for creative details had a flip side in his maniacal germ-phobia and scary control issues with women. Like Citizen Kane, which it so often resembles, The Aviator centers on a man driven by inexplicable childhood forces and secret (even to him) agendas.

Hughes emerges as a consummate iconoclastic, triumphantly American figure all the more satisfying in our own age of men of little backbone. From The King of Comedy's demented Rupert Pupkin to Jake LaMotta, Scorsese often finds a compelling pathos within needy and narcissistic men. Scorsese is a director whose gifts of empathy are so perverse, he has made a serial killer cabbie in Taxi Driver one of the most charismatic figures in film history, and he offers no less to Hughes.