Review: The Aviator, Kinsey

In Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, Howard Hughes springs from his mother's bath fully formed, like Athena from Zeus's head. His mother teaches him to spell "quarantine" and instructs him of the dangers of typhoid, cholera, and other diseases carried by the colored folks. He's born out of this moment, a fully-formed neurotic, and this moment serves to explain all the eccentricities he displays throughout the rest of the movie. Or does it?

The scene reminds me of the flashback scenes in Ray, or the childhood scenes in Kinsey, these moments that are supposed to be the sources of the adult we face in the rest of the movie. These moments almost always feel like biopic cliches, but I'm not sure Scorsese's heart is in that early scene enough to make it so. For one thing, it's such a short, odd introduction, with strangely incestuous overtones, that it seems barely adequate to explain why Hughes grew more and more neurotic about germs as he aged.

The screenplay, Scorsese, and Dicaprio play Hughes as a series of emotional peaks, one dramatic explosion after another. In every scene, he's spending himself into greater debt, flying planes higher and faster, shouting at one of his minions to tail someone, chasing one gorgeous woman after another. The energy, and the occasional flashes of humor, are palpable. It's a feverish, manic electricity that I always associate with Scorsese movies, that seemed to arise from the pavement of New York streets at night in Taxi Driver, or Mean Streets. Or, if you ever watch an interview with the man, from Scorsese himself.

Dicaprio is a first-rate actor. Tabloids document his crazy offscreen life, but onscreen he submerges himself in every role without a hint of ego. All Hughes' mental energy and worries seem to concentrate in the constant furrow between Dicaprio's eyebrows. Only two things play against Dicaprio, and they're related. One is his role in Titanic. If you could rewrite his career and remove that role from his resume, it might help to remove the second peculiarity about him, and that is his youthful countenance. I can't help thinking that Dicaprio will look like he's in his early twenties for decades, until one day he'll suddenly look like he's sixty. His Howard Hughes looks so young and wispy, especially standing next to Cate Blanchett's Katharine Hepburn (Blanchett's portrayal of the famous actress and her unforgettable manners of speech is a gas, almost worth the price of admission by itself).

The movie hints at some quality of Hughes that attracts endearment from women as diverse as Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner (besides his money). Is it the single-minded devotion he brings to aeronautics? Perhaps. There's a wonderful moment early in the movie, when he turns all his attention and charm on a cigarette girl, as if she's one of his airplane models. And he purchases some tabloid photos of Hepburn and Spencer Tracy even after she leaves Hughes. But he seems much more charming to his key personnel, especially his financial manager Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) and his chief aeronautical engineer Glenn Odekirk. They tear at their hair every time Hughes pushes them further, but you sense they love to be stretched to heights they never imagined they'd reach with their own limited visions.

The movie fails to help the audience understand Hughes inside out, and perhaps that's an unrealistic aspiration for biopics. Movies that strive to make historical figures coherent always take liberties with the truths of their life (e.g. A Beautiful Mind, Ray). People are just too complex to summarize neatly in two hours, and it's entirely understandable that someone like Hughes, who went crazy at the end of his life, would be even more difficult to dissect than others. It's one reason many people consider the best biopic to be 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, which almost seems cubist. If a biopic captures the spirit of a person on screen, I'd consider it a success, even if the person's actions lack a graspable internal logic. The Aviator is more true to that ideal for biopics than most. The way each scene encapsulates some major dramatic action on the part of Hughes is done to abbreviate his life in favor of evoking his accomplishments and energy.

And of course, Scorsese remains one director whose movies I'll always see. His camera, always in quest of a revealing psychological shot or pan, never fails to fascinate. And he's a movie lover to an extreme; in one scene, he depicts a Hughes' dinner side of peas colored blue because that's how they would've looked in old two-strip Technicolor. I don't think he's capable of making a "studio" film, even if he tried. It's just not in his nature. The elderly couples on either side of me walked out before the movie concluded. Perhaps they were expecting the usual uplifting Hollywood biopic. When you see a Scorsese movie, you know who the hell made it.

Kinsey is a martyr to our diversity (mostly sexual; at one point in the movie his wife finds him sitting in the bathroom, his blood dripping down on the white tile). In that way, he seems uniquely an American hero. Laura Linney and Liam Neeson are exceptional, perfectly cast for a movie in which they portray a couple that is more open-minded than can be expected, even of liberal intellectuals. Their faces, unconventionally handsome, are portraits of emotional generosity and strength. Recall Linney forgiving Sean Penn at the end of Mystic River. Peter Saarsgard is always intriguing. Saarsgard's face, especially his eyes, are simultaneously sleepy and alive.

My favorite parts of Kinsey revolve around Kinsey and his assistants' method of interviewing subjects on their sexual habits. To make subjects feel comfortable discussing such private, intimate moments of their life, Kinsey teaches his assistants a highly non-judgmental, neutral, and even friendly style of questioning. After the 2004 election, when everyone was judging everyone else (even those who held themselves above the fray were judging the judgers, as I'm doing now), the extreme openness of Kinsey, his wife, and his assistants feels like an intellectual rejuvenation.

Not surprisingly, I wasn't as fond of the screenplay's attempt to tie Kinsey's life's research to his relationship to his father. The flashbacks to his youth and the over-the-top portrayal of Kinsey's father by John Lithgow are unnecessary. The interviews with some college couples and even his own sexual difficulties with his wife are enough to establish that America was a sexual cloister in which Kinsey's sexual studies seem even more revolutionary than they would today.