The Aviator and Beyond the Sea (review)

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Bio Diversity

There’s a scene in The Aviator and one in Beyond the Sea that exemplifies how each film approaches its biographical subject, how very different those approaches are, and why both films are so equally entertaining nevertheless. In Aviator, it’s the moment when Howard Hughes, pretty near the height of his power and wealth, takes his new gal pal Katharine Hepburn for a nighttime flight over Los Angeles in one of his planes, a slow soaring and swooping over the dark hills sparkling with lights. It’s beautifully idyllic, redolent with the romance of classic Hollywood, and only just touched with hints of the dramatic decline Hughes was later to take: the steering wheel of the plane is covered with plastic — germs, you know — but Hughes has no hesitation in kissing Hepburn full on the mouth. It’s a striking bit of filmmaking, and it’s probably headed for immortality on some future Greatest Movie Scenes list.
In Beyond the Sea, it’s the scene in which Bobby Darin, just starting his upslide to fame and fortune, runs from his mother’s funeral to a TV appearance — and he does this by dashing down the aisle of the chapel while mourners assist him in a quick costume change, from black to sharkskin, while the curtains at the back of the church draw back to reveal a TV studio. It’s the height of movie artificiality, but it cuts right to the quick of a relationship, between Darin and his mother, that was all about her encouraging him to follow a dream that she, as a former vaudeville performer, shared with him, and not letting anything get in his way. In a different film, one that hadn’t already been treading a fine line between snark and sentiment, this could have been an awful, heartless moment — instead, it’s a celebration of drive and ambition fueled by unconditional love.

So here we have these two films, both rather adoring of their subjects with little critical to say about them, admiring portraits that show us what they did to earn their fame while never really delving so deeply into their psyches that we understand what drove them… and that’s okay. Martin Scorsese’s (Gangs of New York, Bringing Out the Dead) The Aviator is the safer of the two, taking few chances but bringing Howard Hughes to life so perfectly that you can forgive it — you barely even notice its timidity until long after you’ve had a thoroughly captivating three hours at the movies… three hours that, heh, fly by. Bold and brash and full of old-fashioned Hollywood sweep, this is an ode to American ingenuity and insanity that’s impossible not to love, an acclamation of a true American hero — or at least a true American character in the “what a character” sense of the word — that’s so full of Yankee spirit and spunk that it seems churlish to suggest (as may occur to you during the film, or more like, afterward) that Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan (The Last Samurai, Sinbad: Legend of the 7 Seas) conveniently ignore the facts that Hughes started out with the tremendous leg up of millions he did not earn but inherited, that when Hughes took on the U.S. Congress he was one of the wealthiest men in the world, that when Hughes went up against Pan-Am he himself was a corporate mogul several times over.

Enormous credit goes to Leonardo DiCaprio (Catch Me If You Can, Gangs of New York) for turning such an improbable figure into something that does genuinely feel like a cheerable fount of archetypal American inventiveness and creativity. In a performance that may lay to rest the ridiculous notion that DiCaprio cannot act, he exudes an obsessive fire that transforms Hughes’s mental illness into the drive that buoyed everything he did, whether it was engineering a new bra for Jane Russell for his film The Outlaw or buying the airline TWA on a lark. DiCaprio’s Hughes is a man who would have been a success, perhaps, even without the head start he got: he saw what people wanted, even if they didn’t know they wanted it, and gave it to them, whether it was coast-to-coast airline service or more decolletage at the movies.

None of which is to suggest that Scorsese isn’t at the top of his game here, either. There are visuals here so insightfully clever that they’re viscerally thrilling — like when he cuts from Hughes’s hand caressing Hepburn’s bare back to his hand stroking the skin of an experimental airplane, merging his passions and his possessiveness in one quick dissolve. He’s gathered an all-star cast — you can’t turn around in here without running into someone like Jude Law (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) as Errol Flynn — and if for nothing else, deserves an ovation for snagging Cate Blanchett (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Coffee and Cigarettes) for the role of Hepburn; her performance is a wonder. In the end, Scorsese turns what might be considered one of the greatest boondoggles of the 20th century — Hughes’s wooden airplane, the Hercules, derided as the “Spruce Goose” — and transforms it into a victory, the rumble of its engines as Hughes pilots it into history a moment of galvanizing triumph.

Beyond the Sea takes a lot more risks, and if it doesn’t always succeed in pulling them off, it still earns high marks for experimenting with the standard biopic format. You get the sense that writer (with Ladder 49‘s Lewis Colick)/director/star Kevin Spacey is maybe just a little bit embarrassed by his fannish worship of Bobby Darin and felt it necessary to leaven it somehow. And so he turned his portrait of the pop star into a metamovie that comments on itself and goofs on particularly silly moments of pop-culture past — “Splish Splash” and Sandra Dee movies — as much as it pays homage to them.

Spacey’s too old to play the teenaged Darin? Sure he is. But instead of pretending he isn’t, the film deals with it head on, Spacey snapping with dismissive Rat Pack attitude right back at the wisecrack about his age from the kid who’s playing Little Bobby (William Ullrich) — he watches the action from the sidelines, the specter of the sick little kid Darin was, a delicate, ruined childhood he wasn’t supposed to survive, an impetus for everything Darin later achieved. And in a further meta twist, Little Bobby is simultaneously the character Little Bobby and the young actor playing him, just as, less intentionally, it’s impossible not to see Spacey (The Life of David Gale, The Shipping News) as, all at once, the character Darin, the star who’s full of love for Darin, and the filmmaker who’s trying to be fair and tell an honest, warts-and-all rags-to-riches tale.

The warts-and-all stuff doesn’t quite work. Spacey, in any of his creative capacities here, never conveys what drew Darin to golden-girl movie star Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth: Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, Wonderland) — they come across as truly devoted to each other, yet there’s room in the story Spacey tells for the initial attraction, on Darin’s part, to be anything from a real sexual spark to a desire for a kid from the rough-and-tumble Bronx to have some Hollywood glitter rub off on him; when their relationship hits the skids, temporarily, there’s likewise no sense of the underpinnings of strength that later brings them back together.

What does work, and makes up for everything, is the music. If you weren’t a Darin fan going in, you may well be coming out, for Spacey stages Darin’s public charisma with such aplomb, and sings Darin’s songs, from the goofy bubble-gum pop of his early years to the heartfelt antiwar anthems of the end of his career, with such enthusiasm that you’ll be tapping your toes for the whole running time and humming the tunes for weeks afterward. Spacey may avoid getting schmaltzy with all his self-aware, yeah-this-is-only-a-movie cheekiness, but there’s a lot of love for retro musical fantasies — like this one — on display anyway.

The Aviator
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language and crash sequence
official site | IMDB

Beyond the Sea
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG-13 for some strong language and a scene of sensuality
official site | IMDB

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