Leonardo DiCaprio in The AviatorTHE AVIATOR

Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, which covers two decades in the life of entrepreneur Howard Hughes, is a skillful, beautifully designed bio-pic, engaging and occasionally thrilling, and, despite a two-and-three-quarter-hour running time, it's remarkably easy to sit through.

The film also boasts shockingly good performances by Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes and Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn, whom Hughes once courted; DiCaprio and Blanchett don't resemble their counterparts in any significant way, but both attack their characters with such actorly glee that the movie is unimaginable without them. So it was a bit of a surprise when I left The Aviator feeling oddly annoyed and depressed, with the film's technical magnificence already evaporating from memory. And then it hit me: I hadn't just seen a Martin Scorsese movie; I'd seen a Steven Spielberg movie.

There's a great deal to applaud in The Aviator - the film's flight sequences, including a disastrous crash-landing through the streets (and houses) of Beverly Hills, are brilliantly conceived and shot - and much to admire. And that's the problem. The film carries with it an unpleasant air of rectitude and nobility, like Scorsese is intentionally delivering a soulless, middlebrow epic to finally assure himself an Oscar. (It just might work, too.) Put simply, Scorsese's talents are on display, but his heart isn't. His technical bravura is beyond question, yet his instincts for character and framing, and his genius for exploring potentially deranged mentalities, are almost completely subjugated in The Aviator. He's employed a style of preening grandeur in the manner of his friend Spielberg's recent works; the film wears badges of Importance and A Film for the Ages, and coming from Scorsese, the effect feels fraudulent, as if he's doing penance for previously giving us such "disreputable" fare as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and GoodFellas. The Aviator's courtroom climax, which aims to be a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-esque (or Amistad-esque) rabble-rouser, is about as uninspired as anything Scorsese has ever staged, and all throughout the film, the director's instincts seem to fail him; the editing, particularly in the Hughes-and-Hepburn scenes, isn't as crisp as it should be, and - strangely, considering Scorsese's track record - he lets some truly terrible performances slip through (especially by a grating Alan Alda and a seriously-out-of-her-league Kate Beckinsale).

The spectacle of Scorsese trying so hard to pull off a big-budget epic in an impersonal Hollywood manner actually becomes weirdly, sadly touching. Unlike The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York, The Aviator hasn't been a longtime personal project for Scorsese - he's playing the role of director-for-hire - and all throughout the film, you feel Scorsese reigning in his impulses and making non-threatening, PG-13 choices, especially in the scenes of Hughes descending into madness (which DiCaprio, though, pulls off with finesse). Much of the material is inherently dark, yet Scorsese smooths out all the rough edges in unsatisfying ways; The Aviator, which begins as a smart, snappy Hollywood fable, becomes a Triumph Over Adversity weeper in the manner of Rain Man and Awakenings and A Beautiful Mind. For the moment, Scorsese has become a softie, and the sight is difficult to take. (In his remarkable documentary series, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, Scorsese hypothesizes on whether that's how directors establish successful careers in Hollywood, by making "one for us and one for Them.")

To be fair, though, I'm not entirely sure how much of Scorsese's vision The Aviator actually deserves. Though he writes some amusing dialogue, John Logan's script doesn't cut very deep, and is almost unforgivable for its melodramatic climax, where, with a little help from a tough-love-spouting Ava Gardner, Hughes' phobias manage to disappear just in time for his big court appearance. Under the circumstances, Scorsese actually does rather well, and still pulls off some outstanding moments, like the nearly Kubrickian sequence with Hughes, his phobias raging, trying to get out of a men's room without touching the doorknob. A lot of The Aviator is great. If Scorsese didn't spend so much time reminding us how great it was, the results might have been far greater.


Bill Murray and cast members of The Life Aquatic with Steve ZissouTHE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU

There's a lovely, surrealist beauty to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The movie doesn't really work - it's often just odd for the sake of being odd - but director/co-writer Wes Anderson is such an invigorating screen magician that it's more than worth seeing anyway. Anderson's comedies are quietly, gently deranged. They have an off-kilter charm that's stylized as all hell but astonishingly true to human experience, and emotion sneaks through in unpredictable, lopsided bursts; sometimes a simple line of dialogue can get you teary-eyed, even if you're not exactly sure why. (Ben Stiller's reading of "I've had a rough year, Dad" in The Royal Tenenbaums remains the high point of Stiller's film career.) The Life Aquatic, which is nominally about a crew of underwater documentarians searching for the shark that killed their commander's best friend, has too many subplots for its own good, but nearly all of them are amusing, and the performers - including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, and a sweetly hilarious Willem Dafoe - are a joy to watch. Plus, blessedly, it has Anderson's signature style imprinted on every frame. His compositions are comically hypnotic - Anderson's works reward repeat viewing, as you always discover hidden jokes the second or third time around - and Anderson is able to incorporate wonderful effects into his underwater shots. The Life Aquatic's computer-generated sea life turns out exactly as you'd expect from Wes Anderson tinkering with CGI - funny, bright, artificial, and unexpectedly entrancing.


Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey in Beyond the SeaBEYOND THE SEA

After my harangue against James L. Brooks and his nauseating Spanglish in last week's column, I can barely muster the strength to attack Kevin Spacey for the embarrassing ego trip that is Beyond the Sea. (Spacey, who has been nurturing this Bobby Darren bio-pic for years, serves as director, co-writer, and star.) But a few words seem necessary. Spacey sings the role of Darren well enough, but is so monumentally wrong for the part that the whole movie collapses within its first reels. In the film, Spacey, who is 45, must portray Darren from his late teens to age 37. And although the film goes to elaborate extremes to explain why the miscast Spacey is playing the popular crooner, there's no getting around the fact that, as a teenager, Spacey looks 45. So when Darren, in his 20s, is wooing Sandra Dee (a chirpy Kate Bosworth), Spacey looks 55 - their scenes together have a creepy, Darren-as-sexual-predator vibe - and when he's replicating the young Darren dancing, all you're thinking is, "I hope Spacey doesn't break a hip." There's a lot that's wrong with Beyond the Sea - the script is unplayable in its this-happened-then-this-happened amateurishness, and all of the film's women are presented as yowling stereotypes - but what's most humiliating about this Kevin Spacey vanity project is, much as it pains me to write it, Mr. Spacey himself.

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