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Review: Amelia

Plane bad
By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 29, 2009
1.0 1.0 Stars


Amelia | Directed by Mira Nair | Written by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan based on books by Susan Butler and Mary S. Lovell | with Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan Mcgregor, Christopher Eccleston, Jon Anderson, Cherry Jones and William Cuddy | Fox Searchlight | 111 minutes
The hallowed formula for an Oscar Best Picture nomination — legendary figure, pat rise and fall scenario, overproduced visuals and music, a showboating performance from a name actor, reassuring platitudes — falls flat in what is Mira Nair’s (Salaam, Bombay!) worst picture. The film reduces the complex and intriguing life of aviatrix Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank), the first woman to cross the Atlantic solo and whose attempt to circumnavigate the globe ended with her still unsolved disappearance in 1937to a collection of dank stereotypes.  Will anyone buy it? A woman in the audience at the screening I attended summed it up: “cliché!”

Not that clichés are necessarily bad — how would we get through life without them? But combined with a bankrupt script, inept editing, and a ludicrous flashback structure, and the result is a disaster of Ed Wood proportions.

It starts with Earhart’s final flight, as the aviatrix grins (one quickly gets tired of Swank’s teeth)  while climbing aboard her silver twin-engined Electra (the lovely antique planes are one of the few reasons to see this film) and tells the assembled media that she’ll keep flying as long as she has breath in her body. Ominous!

Flashback to little girl Amelia watching a yellow biplane from a Kansas cornfield. As her voiceover points out, that’s when she first knew what she had to do with her life. Cut to New York City, 1928, where her future manager/paramour/husband George Putnam (Richard Gere, who seems to be wearing the same suit he had on in Chicago and is appears to doing a bad imitation of FDR) asks her why she wants to fly. “Why does a man want to ride a horse?” she replies. So much for psychology!

Meanwhile, the last flight continues, with the mileage posted after each subsequent flashback (I got anxious around 28,000 miles; would the damn plane never come down?) It’s narrative via odometer, backed by Earhart’s banal reflections, spoken presumably from the grave. Or maybe plot by power point, as each segment serves to underline another bromide. The most frequently iterated theme: Earhart’s need to be free. Ironic given how enslaved the film is to mindless conventions.

To its credit, Amelia does broach some intriguing points. Such as the nature of celebrity: Putnam has Earhart endorsing products from Lucky Strikes to her own line of clothing. Which was on the mannish side, as you might recall, and Earhart’s sexual ambiguity, perhaps unintentionally, is suggested in a scene where she takes Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones) for a joyride, recalling the scene in which Howard Hughes hands over the controls to Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese’s equally messy, but infinitely superior Oscar-nominated biopic, The Aviator. When Earhart does stray from the flight path of fidelity, however, it’s with hunky Brahmin Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor). Much more interesting than that sparkless relationship is Gene’s little boy, Gore (William Cuddy). I couldn’t help thinking how much more I’d rather be watching a biopic about him.

And that takes us to about the “13,000 miles to go” point  in her final flight, and perhaps the most impressive accomplishment of Amelia is that long before it’s over it has eliminated any curiosity about what went wrong in that fatal voyage. It could have been as simple as a dead battery; certainly the juice in this genre has run out.

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