The Aviator
dir. Martin Scorsese
Opens Sat Dec 25.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
dir. Wes Anderson
Opens Sat Dec 25.

Every year at about this time the studios roll out their prestigious works, and every year all but a handful are quickly exposed as frauds. This year is no exception. A sad case in point: Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, which presents itself as an epic biopic of Howard Hughes, but which is really little more than three hours of the director polishing his mantel in anticipation of an Oscar. That it's a relatively swift three hours, solidly made and occasionally inspired, in no way excuses the lapse. Scorsese has attempted to make his own Citizen Kane here, but there's a major discrepancy: Orson Welles made his crowning achievement just as his talents were blossoming. Scorsese, unfortunately, is trying to make his just as his brilliance appears to be receding.

As Hughes, Leonardo DiCaprio buries himself beneath a decent nasal twang, but despite his best efforts the man himself remains at large. It may be impossible to fully know Howard Hughes, but DiCaprio and Scorsese can only offer the broadest of paint strokes here. Hughes was a driven man, a visionary man, a man with demons--this is all we take away from The Aviator, and coming from the director of Goodfellas, which managed the neat trick of shattering both the mafia film and the biopic in a single inspired blow, it feels especially unfortunate. Scorsese attempts to cover up the lack of depth in The Aviator by focusing heavily on both Hughes' love life with the likes of Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett, over-indulging in Hepburn's famous tenacity) as well as his daring in the skies, but no matter how many romantic entanglements and spectacular crashes we see, the film itself remains superficial. The best moment comes courtesy of Alec Baldwin, as the nefarious head of Pan Am airlines, who, having realized Hughes has bested him, can only utter a single word--"fuck"--delivered with an inspired comical defeat. It's a sentiment Scorsese himself may soon find himself identifying with. After all, when a hack like Ron Howard out-directs you in the biopic-of-a-crazy-ass-genius department, you know you've got problems.

* * *

While Scorsese's film lacks substance, Wes Anderson's new film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, lacks heart, offering up in its place an aquamarine world sinking due to a near-terminal case of whimsy. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a famed oceanographer/documentarian whose life, both professionally and personally, is nearing the point of shambles: His wife (Anjelica Huston) wants out, his latest films are tanking, and a man who may or may not be his son (Owen Wilson) has decided to track him down. After Zissou's best friend and exploring partner is devoured by a mysterious "jaguar shark," he launches his crumbling ship, the Belafonte, on what may be a suicidal quest for revenge.

What follows is a surprisingly hollow voyage, consumed with Anderson's obvious obsession with fractured families, but one which, unlike the Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, becomes far too enamored with itself to really work. Unlike Anderson's harshest critics, I've always been more than willing to accept both his otherworldly concoctions and his heavy lifting from Hal Ashby; this time, however, he delivers little else. Long stretches of The Life Aquatic feel malnourished, as if Anderson spent so much energy creating the film's distinct reality that he forgot to provide reasons for that reality to exist; the characters don't so much inhabit the film, they pose in front of it, often searching for a reason to be. Zissou and his crew live in a world populated by fictional creatures like "crayon ponyfish," a world where the public clamors for undersea exploration and film festivals debut Team Zissou's films before packed houses. It's a pleasant world, cobbled together from equal parts forgotten pop culture and Anderson's own distinct brand of quirkiness. Unfortunately, Anderson and his cowriter Noah Baumbach (Mr. Jealousy) fail to provide an anchor, so the entire film is left to merely drift. The Life Aquatic is the first stumble of Anderson's career; all I want for Christmas is for it to be the last.

Support The Stranger