DiCaprio soars in 'The Aviator'

Movie about Howard Hughes may be Scorcese's Oscar baby

Here's hoping "The Aviator" scores an Oscar for director Martin Scorsese. I don't say that because it's the best-directed picture of the year, but because Mr. Scorsese is long overdue.

More important, Scorsese might then let himself be Scorsese again, bypassing gargantuan projects like this and "Gangs of New York" for edgy, nervy pictures like "Taxi Driver" and "GoodFellas."

"The Aviator" is a sprawling epic with almost as much physical breadth - and almost as few genuine Scorsese touches - as "Gangs of New York," the movie that was expected (wrongly) to triumph at last year's Oscar night.

The title character is Howard Hughes - filmmaker, pilot, airline mogul, eccentric - played by Leonardo DiCaprio in his most ambitious performance to date. The film covers a long stretch of Hughes's life, from 1905 to 1976, examining his Hollywood career and his achievements as a pilot and aircraft engineer, along with his romances and battles with corrupt government officials. Eventually, struggles with mental problems turned him into a recluse.

There's enough material here for at least a dozen biopics. Scorsese delves into many aspects, giving appropriate weight to both the obvious charms and poorly hidden anxieties that were Hughes's blessing and burden. The film often seems oddly cursory, though, avoiding inner depths to skim over the surface of Hughes's life, rather like the cumbersome "spruce goose" aircraft that Hughes designed.

Still, "The Aviator" has to be called one of the year's best movies. Credit goes partly to the built-in fascination of its subject and partly to its excellent cast. Mr. DiCaprio is in top form here, bringing a difficult character to vivid life. Cate Blanchett is even better as Katharine Hepburn, striking an excellent balance between mere impersonation and finely tuned psychological acting.

Kudos to Jude Law and Kate Beckinsale as Errol Flynn and Ava Gardner, respectively, and Alec Baldwin, who's perfect as a rival airline executive.

This doesn't add up to Scorsese at his best, but it may give us Scorsese the Oscar winner, at last.

Rated PG-13; contains vulgarity.

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