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Fly Boy

"The Aviator" hums to the tune of old Hollywood.

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The action begins on the set of Hughes' greatest film, the World War I dogfight epic "Hell's Angels." It's the late 1920s, the last years of the silent era. Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) has barely broken his own 20s but is swaggering around his sets, bellowing orders. Like a glory-seeking general, he risks his life, ignores threats of bankruptcy and, at the end of $2 million and two years of shooting, orders the entire thing reshot to accommodate the advent of sound. The press wonders aloud whether it will end up costing more than the war. Hughes perseveres, though — story of his life — at his own peril. His movie is a smash but costs $4 million more than any project of the time could hope to recoup (and probably about a third of Leonardo DiCaprio's salary for playing him).

Perennially boyish like Hughes, Leo is a fine choice for the arrogant millionaire playboy. He is a natural, if unimposing, presence, though there are close-ups of his grimacing, goateed visage when you half expect the retreating camera to reveal a gigantic ocean liner or 19th-century New York. Sometimes even the most obvious casting choice can have a limitation, like being the lead in your last period piece. Opposite DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett gets the opportunity of a lifetime to channel the spirit and chin of Katharine Hepburn, one of Hughes' main squeezes. Her portrayal may go down as the definitive one. And compared to some of the tycoon's other accessories — Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow — she's absolutely brilliant.

Scorsese is renowned for his infatuation with movies and encyclopedic knowledge of them. He reportedly made Blanchett watch, in preparation, every movie Hepburn ever made. It is during the scenes of old Hollywood when we sense the director's hands rubbing together with glee. Period detail is as studiously attended to as it was in "The Age of Innocence," and the camera gazes longingly at the lifestyles of the rich and famous when they were as rich and famous as they would ever be. Most films can't completely escape their own times; there is always a hairstyle or a slang expression out of place. "The Aviator," by contrast, doesn't seem as much set in the '30s and '40s as made in them.

Except, unfortunately, when the picture succumbs to digitized effects. Nothing can snap you out of a daydream of 1947 faster than a digitized scene, especially one that pulls backward from the cockpit of a roaring prop plane. This director should know better than anyone that a movie is least effectual as a movie when it is trying to be a roller coaster. "The Aviator" is so much better when Scorsese inserts archival footage instead of computer scenery. Perhaps no one can wield the money of a big-budget Hollywood movie with total discretion. There are bound to be clumsy moments, just as there are times when "The Aviator" feels made by Spielberg rather than Scorsese.

It is possible the director hoped to avoid any comparisons to Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane." There are numerous parallels between Hughes' life and Welles' ersatz representation of William Randolph Hearst, from fame and fortune at an early age to the gradual retirement from society in later life. The most direct contrast is that Scorsese's Hughes is ultimately sympathetic. Psychological probing is set aside for spectacular visual renderings and dead-on characterizations. Hughes' public and private lives could hardly have been more elegantly reassembled. The inner man has been saved for a later day. ***1/2 S

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