Looking for Hughes in the High Clouds

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The smoothness of Leonardo DiCaprio's face is deceptive. He can hide behind its boyish affability the way Laurence Olivier hid behind putty noses and funny accents. In Catch Me If You Can, DiCaprio's face was a blank check on which his character forged a career in duplicity. At other times, as in Gangs of New York, a rage can pop out like a monster in a lake. His face is too soft to be a tabula rasa; it is a pillow on which DiCaprio can embroider surprising emotions. That's why he is an actor, a gifted one, even more than he is a movie star.

All this suits him to play Howard Hughes, who was an enigma even more than he was a tycoon. A pampered rich kid, Hughes made millions in the aviation and hotel industries. As Hollywood's longest resident outsider, he directed the terrific aerial epic Hell's Angels and produced two films that defined their genres for decades: the newspaper comedy The Front Page and the gangster saga Scarface. When he wasn't flying planes, and crashing them, he was wooing glamour gals Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. Best of all, Hughes was a full-time eccentric who finally achieved a madness as bizarre as it was picturesque.

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This is the stuff of pulp fiction; that's how the '60s novel and film The Carpetbaggers played it. Martin Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan take a statelier approach, retelling two decades of Hughes' life in chronological order and trying to explain his degeneration with an eerily erotic scene of his mother washing the boy Howard and warning him of the dangers of pestilence. This penny-Freud thesis can't support the film's nearly three ambling hours. We're happy to take the trip with Hughes but don't know how he reached Destination Crazy Hermit.

While youngsters may wonder who Jean Harlow was (and whether she was as wan and angular as Gwen Stefani plays her), the Turner Classic Movies crowd will enjoy Cate Blanchett's high-pitched impersonation of Hepburn. If you're going to do Kate, do her up grand, lovey. Kate Beckinsale doesn't have the Gardner glow, but her role is mainly nurse to Hughes as he spirals into loopiness.

Scorsese movies always have a bounty of great scenes, little miracles of kinesis, and this one is no exception. Any time the film takes place in a plane, it soars (one thrilling takeoff, two amazing crashes). The Aviator has an opulence reminiscent of classic MGM. There's also an efficient crackle to the postwar duel Hughes wages with a crafty Senator (Alan Alda). But this handsome movie is an oddly well-behaved one to come from the preternaturally energetic Scorsese.

DiCaprio is ever plausible and watchable; he carries this big picture with grace. As for Scorsese, he seems to have taken a cue from the DiCaprio fašade, fashioning a portrait of smooth surfaces and trusting DiCaprio to show what's inside. Well, an actor can reveal meaning, but he shouldn't be asked to invent it. Despite its star's heroic efforts, The Aviator is a gorgeous jet, flying on automatic pilot.