Three hours can be a very, very long time (try "Alexander" — or, on second thought, don't), or it can pass by as quickly as ... well, as Martin Scorsese's biopic "The Aviator,"...

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Three hours can be a very, very long time (try “Alexander” — or, on second thought, don’t), or it can pass by as quickly as … well, as Martin Scorsese’s biopic “The Aviator,” which waltzes us through the midlife years of billionaire Howard Hughes with grace, style and a certain breeziness. And while we leave the film without much more of an understanding of Hughes’ legendary obsessions than we did upon entering, we nonetheless leave with a sense of having been glamorously, thoroughly entertained — which, these days, is a rare pleasure.

And much of that sense comes from Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Hughes, tamping down his usual boyishness (it’s not the actor’s fault that, at 30, he still has the face of a choirboy) with a blunt, gruff charm and a maturity that takes on a haunted quality as the film progresses.

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Opening Dec. 25

*** 1/2

“The Aviator,”
with Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Jude Law, Matt Ross, Adam Scott, Gwen Stefani, Ian Holm, Danny Huston, Kelli Garner. Directed by Martin Scorsese, from a screenplay by John Logan. 169 minutes. Rated R for thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language and a crash sequence. Several theaters.

Hughes arrived in Hollywood in the 20s as a young man, rich with inherited wealth and ambition. Watch DiCaprio in an early scene at the Cocoanut Grove, looking like a kid out of his league — until he clamps his blue eyes on a pretty waitress. She immediately becomes putty in his hands, and so does nearly everybody else he crosses paths with: Hughes, rich with the confidence that money brings, here has a life force as big as a Cinerama screen, and DiCaprio rises to the challenge.

Beginning in the mid-1920s (after a brief, odd prologue in which Hughes’ mother gives her young son a rather intense bath) and continuing through the mid-’40s, “The Aviator” is less a full biography than a depiction of a man’s glory years. (Hughes died in 1976, after living in eccentric, paranoid seclusion for many years.)

For Hughes, those years brought Hollywood fame as a director and womanizer, worldwide renown as a pilot whose exploits included setting a record for flying around the world in 1938, and both acclaim and ridicule as an inventor, of planes (most notably the Hercules, aka the “Spruce Goose,” then the world’s largest airplane) and of brassieres (designing a special push-up to support Jane Russell’s assets for “The Outlaw,” which promptly got the movie banned).


Cate Blanchett is a wonder in her role as Katharine Hepburn.

Scorsese, working from John Logan’s witty screenplay, lets all of this fly by with surprising ease. Supporting players are ushered in and out of DiCaprio’s orbit, some with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speed (Gwen Stefani’s Jean Harlow; Jude Law’s Errol Flynn), while others get a more languorous turn in the spotlight.

Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn (who had a lengthy real-life affair with Hughes, pre-Spencer Tracy) is a wonder; everything she says, in Hepburn’s characteristic r-less drawl, is both funny caricature and affectionate tribute. (Listen to what she does with the name of a rival, spitting out “Gin-guh Ro-guhs.”) Despite a cap of red curls and some drawn-on freckles, she looks little like Hepburn — though, in one profile shot, she looks startlingly like Garbo — but seems to capture just a bit of her insouciant soul.

By the end, we’ve been shown just enough strangeness from Hughes — usually involving the sanitation levels of a series of men’s rooms — to get hints of the sad, lonely, germ-obsessed man he became. But the busy, bustling “Aviator” doesn’t really want to go there. With its glorious colors, dreamy costumes (Kate Beckinsale, as Ava Gardner, is a vision in lipstick red), and adventurous swagger, Scorsese’s film is essentially about a man who wants to fly — and does plenty of soaring of its own.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725