Marty’s Mistake: Leo as Hughes

At the movies, the Christmas countdown is here. I have lost track of the sheer volume of films arriving in time for holiday spending sprees and year-end Oscar nominations, but with so many openings and so little time and space, all bets are off and I’m calling them as fast as I see them. Among the surfeit of junk, I think it is safe to say you might enjoy a few pleasant stocking-stuffer diversions, but one thing is clear: don’t expect any last-minute masterpieces. It’s been a rotten year, and the best has not been saved for last.

I perversely enjoyed Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator despite its bloated budget, pretentious visual effects and numerous biographical flaws, mainly because I have a passion for period pieces about Hollywood. But don’t go anticipating revelations about Howard Hughes compiled with the sobering accuracy of a History Channel documentary. Like Hughes, director Scorsese is nothing if not a prisoner of his own fertile imagination. According to the women I know who were Hughes’ employees, pals, confidantes and bedmates, the Howard Hughes in this fizzy, showbizzy biopic bears no resemblance to any real person alive or dead. Still, when a gorgeous train wreck like Ava Gardner nixes his marriage proposal with “You’re too crazy for me!”, you know it’s not going to be dull.

Hughes was a handsome weirdo who grew up obsessed with cleanliness and terrified of germs. After inheriting a fortune amassed by manufacturing drill bits for Texas oil rigs, he invaded Hollywood in the late 20′s with his own private air force and bought up RKO studios to finance his own celluloid dreams and meet girls. Maybe he held up his first picture as a director, Hell’s Angels, for eight months waiting for the perfect cloud formations, then started it all over again with the invention of sound, taking two years and most of his money to get it right. But was he so afraid of germs that even the steering wheel of his plane had to be wrapped in cellophane? Did the millionaire playboy with a different star on his arm each night travel with his own disinfectant soap, vomit at the sight of food, and go to swanky nightclubs ordering milk served only in bottles with the caps unbroken? (If so, why did he also chain-smoke?) Did he reshape Jane Russell’s breasts to enrage the censors? Did he suffer from so many obsessive-compulsive disorders that he turned green from a fear of touching doorknobs? After he was dumped by Kate Hepburn, who was almost as nutty as he was, did he really save her career by offering T.W.A. stock to the editor of Confidential magazine to kill stories about her scandalous affair with married Catholic Spencer Tracy? In the end, when he was destroyed by the federal government and the Civil Aeronautics Board, did he really lock himself in his house as a bearded, filthy recluse, urinating in milk bottles and wandering naked through cluttered rooms with nearly 80 percent of his body covered in scars? And did Ava Gardner really arrive, force her way into the filth and debris strewn across the floor, and bully him into washing, shaving and facing a Senate subcommittee hearing accusing him of being a profiteering war criminal for taking $56 million from the U.S. government to build spy planes that he failed to deliver? Such bizarre events may seem preposterous in outline, but they become doubly challenging to credulity when they’re all happening to Leonardo DiCaprio.

Hopelessly miscast, Leo’s scrawny and diminutive frame never remotely comes close to the stature or the eccentricity of Howard Hughes. All we know is what we’ve read: The Hughes legend still intrigues because he was such a carefully calculated mystery by his own design. Although he died in 1976, his legacy is still being exhumed in countless books and movies. But nothing factual or invented comes convincingly alive in this flaccid impersonation. Mr. DiCaprio has done fine things in the past, but he looks too much like a wimpy little teenager in dirty gym shoes to be even vaguely convincing as Howard Hughes. I mean, the Hughes wealth, power and sex appeal devastated scores of broken-hearted movie stars and made grown men shudder with envy and anxiety every time he entered a room. Mr. DiCaprio just makes any logical person over 14 wonder if he ever graduated high school. Does he really make $20 million a film? How many pizzas can you buy for $20 million? And why? His movies do not guarantee box-office payoffs. Mr. Scorsese directed Mr. DiCaprio’s last bomb, Gangs of New York, but apparently learned nothing from that painful experience.

Mr. Scorsese is a great director who often fails, but you have to give him credit for always being on the prowl for new and demanding subjects, even when the results are disastrous, and for remaining true to his own vision, even when it is not shared. Howard Hughes is a big subject, even by Hollywood criteria-billionaire aviator, industrialist, inventor, producer, director and professional wacko-and Mr. Scorsese is apparently mesmerized by his contradictory peculiarities as both tycoon and Casanova. There is opulence and passion to spare in the way Mr. Scorsese attempts to tell the story, but the most interesting details are untouched in John Logan’s sketchy screenplay. No mention, for example, of the last 10 years of Hughes’ life, when he lived in seclusion on top of the Desert Inn casino in Las Vegas, attended by a coterie of male Mormons, or of when Hughes then disappeared into the darkness of undisclosed locations. No attempt is made to reveal the secrets of his final four years. No reference is made to his extravagantly loopy marriage to Jean Peters, the fraudulent 1971 “authorized autobiography” hoax that landed author Clifford Irving in jail, the rumors of his kidnappings, how he died, or the final battle for his fortune, fueled by the appearance of a tidal wave of fake wills.

Much of The Aviator centers on Hughes’ transcontinental speed records, the taxpayer money he frittered away on the bogus aircraft nicknamed the Spruce Goose, and his tangled business interests, managed by his loyal business flunky, Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly), who balanced the books and knew where the bodies were buried. Juggling affairs with Faith Domergue, who is now forgotten, and Ava Gardner, who never will be, while devoting years and millions to the development of the world’s biggest airplane and fighting wars with bureaucrats and rival aeronautics C.E.O.’s, Hughes was too big a personality for one film to hold. No wonder The Aviator is so choppy and its population so caricatured. Jude Law is a ridiculous Errol Flynn. Kate Beckinsale never comes anywhere close to the same ballpark that Ava Gardner ruled. Alec Baldwin is cool and calculating as Juan Trippe, the head of Pan Am, who tries to wreck Hughes’ ambitions for overseas routes for his own airline. In the role of the crooked U. S. Senator who tries to put Hughes out of business, Alan Alda is as lethal and smooth as poisoned cod-liver oil. Even in her slouchy trench coats and tailored slacks, Cate Blanchett looks nothing like Kate Hepburn, but her mannish impersonation does manage to preserve the flat, clipped steamroller accent in amber. For some odd reason that can only be explained by Mr. Scorsese and ace cameraman Robert Richardson, entire sections have been filmed in unnatural lighting and color, eschewing earthy yellows and bright reds and greens for a sepia-tone patina of chipotle pepper mixed with lots of aquamarine. I suspect that Mr. Scorsese secretly views himself as one of Howard Hughes’ soul mates: He works feverishly at being a tortured eccentric, regardless of what anyone says. Hughes lived his life with the same velocity at which he tested his planes and broke speed records. The fact that he always marched to a different drummer was less important than the speed and fuel pressure with which he did it. Sounds like a description of Martin Scorsese to me.

Thieves Like Us

With follow-the-dots headings like “Rome-Three and a Half Years Ago” and “East Haddam, Connecticut-Three and a Half Weeks Ago,” the all-star A-list thieves, pickpockets, safecrackers, explosive experts and thugs who robbed Andy Garcia’s casino of $160 million in one of the biggest heists in the history of Las Vegas are back. Somebody broke the rules and ratted on them. Now, even though the insurance company paid off the money stolen from the Bellagio, Mr. Garcia is greedy: He wants his money back twice-with interest-or they will all end up in cement shoes, rooming with Jimmy Hoffa. So in march George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner and the others, in yet another ripoff of the worthless ring-a-ding-ding Ocean’s Eleven franchise the Rat Pack started in 1960 that has become a junkyard cinematic cottage industry. Frank Sinatra has a lot to answer for.

This one is called Ocean’s Twelve. Pried with a crowbar from retirement hideaways in Utah, Miami, Rome, London and New Jersey, the old gang has 14 days to find about $20 million each. Too hot to pull another job in America, they head for Amsterdam. Something about a jewel robbery. Meanwhile, as the screen flashes things like “Second Friday-Five Days Left!”, the crooks find a rival French criminal mastermind who proposes a new score-a priceless Fabergé egg-to prove who the best thief in the whole world is. If the others win, the Frenchman will pay off their entire debt. To further thicken a lugubrious plot already multi-layered in confusion, Brad Pitt is also being pursued by his ex-girlfriend, a detective who works for Interpol (Catherine Zeta-Jones). When all but three members of the gang get dragged into custody, they summon Tess (Julia Roberts), the hard-boiled wife of ringleader Danny Ocean (George Clooney), to fly in and steal the Fabergé egg herself, disguised as-are you ready?-pregnant visiting movie star Julia Roberts! She pulls it off, making Julia Roberts look really stupid and brain-dead, until another visiting movie star-Bruce Willis!-recognizes her in the museum. By now the movie has bankrupted its ideas, and director Steven Soderbergh’s contrived, clueless direction sinks them all in a bumbling farce so lame even the Marx Brothers couldn’t save it.

It’s bad enough when Hollywood remakes the great classics and ruins them in the bargain. But why would anyone want to remake a bad movie that wasn’t any good in the first place? This sequel to a big remake of a big original zero is nothing more than a big excuse for a big-name cast to get paid obscene amounts of money to hang out on an expense-paid vacation, goof around with each other and waste a lot of time and money on big noise, big incoherence and a big marketing budget, making a big clamor for escapism amid the serious year-end films with higher aspirations and more value. Big is not always good, but with Ocean’s Twelve, like its predecessors, big is all there is.

Shall We Dance?

It is clear that what we need is Fred Astaire. Well, for the highly esteemed musical trio that created the phenomenal long-running hit Our Sinatra, lightning strikes twice. Their new show, Singing Astaire, is packing them in at Birdland, where it runs every weekend through Jan. 9. (Phone 212-581-3080 for reservations and show times.) On the Boesendorfer, pianist-singer Eric Comstock is joined by luscious singer and vocal arranger Hilary Kole and lanky crooner Christopher Gines, in a mirthful, informative and magically rhapsodic celebration of the songs that Fred Astaire sang or danced to in the movies. For a dancer, he introduced more hits on film than Crosby and Sinatra; this show covers 30 of them in 75 minutes and leaves you begging for more. Ms. Kole scats with the best on the jazz-flavored “Pick Yourself Up.” Mr. Gines can sing anything in the long-lamented style of the great matinee idols of yesterday. Giving Johnny Mercer’s “Something’s Gotta Give” (which Fred sang to young and nubile Leslie Caron in Daddy Long Legs) a warm, romantic, tropical bossa nova beat, the versatile, swinging Mr. Comstock builds a hearth in the heart. Highlights: the three-part picnic harmony on the Gershwins’ immortal “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” an exquisite “Never Gonna Dance” in a meltingly nuanced ballad tempo, and all three voices rising and blending on a juxtaposition of “That Face” and “The Way You Look Tonight” like the folds of a soufflé fresh from the oven. Mr. Comstock also has a sensational new CD of gorgeous and underexposed masterpieces called No One Knows on the Harbinger Records label that would make the ultimate Christmas gift for the music maven in your life. All in all, he’s a busy little wunderkind, and he’s ready to share. Somewhere, somehow, I am convinced that Fred Astaire is humming along approvingly.