Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator overlays three legends, all of them made of celluloid. Only one is explicit, though: the fable of the immensely rich wacko Howard Hughes, who spent his last years self-imprisoned in a Las Vegas hotel he’d bought for that purpose, watching movies around the clock, growing his hair and beard to Nazarene length and shuffling about with Kleenex boxes for shoes.

Actually, Scorsese never gets around to this part of the story. He just foreshadows it like crazy, as he relates the less widely known legend of Hughes’s Hollywood exploits from 1927 through 1947. Lean, handsome and a child of wealth, the young Hughes left Houston for Los Angeles to make movies–big movies–and to have his way with the women drawn to that gaudy occupation. While in town he also designed and flew airplanes, set world speed records, ran an airline, procured controversial War Department contracts and broke a few taboos (that is, exploited them deliriously) by making The Outlaw, a western that focused single-mindedly on Jane Russell’s breasts. Since well-funded mischief, off-screen and on, has always been part of Hollywood’s fun, it’s not surprising that Scorsese likes the bustling young don’t-give-a-damn Hughes. He enjoys the way Hughes spent recklessly on movies and airplanes, outside the rules of studios and most other business institutions; and this enjoyment comes rushing off the screen like a strong updraft, giddily lifting the audience’s spirits.

Yet just when The Aviator is at its flightiest, Scorsese will remind you of the crash to come: Hughes’s descent into mad, bitter isolation. In these darker moments of The Aviator, which grow more frequent and prolonged as the film progresses, Scorsese subtly evokes a second film legend: that of Charles Foster Kane.

Look at a close-up of Hughes (or, rather, Leonardo DiCaprio) late in the film, with shadows spilling over a face grown puffy and mustached, and you might almost think you’re seeing Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. In case the resemblance isn’t strong enough to register on its own, The Aviator also echoes some of Kane’s cocksure dialogue (“If I go on losing money at this rate…”) and provides two or three Welles-like semi-theatrical tableaux, called up as the lights rise here and there on a darkened soundstage. The most important of these latter scenes involves Hughes’s memory, from boyhood, of his beloved mother–a Rosebud moment, you might say, which is meant to explain all of the protagonist’s subsequent behavior in a way that Welles himself once belittled as “rather dollar-book Freud.” But I doubt the cheapness of the explanation bothers Scorsese. Like Welles, he is telling a fable, about a rich boy from the American heartland who bulled his way into a popular business, indulged his sexual appetites, clashed with a politician and ultimately (after The Aviator ends) became a dotty hermit. Add a few incidental associations–such as the fact that Hughes bought and ruined RKO, the studio where Welles had made Citizen Kane–and the usefulness of the parallel becomes obvious. Hughes’s story gives Scorsese the opportunity to make his own version of The Greatest Movie of All Time.

And why shouldn’t he try? The third legend worked into The Aviator, the one that is most covert and yet most personal, concerns the ambitions of Scorsese’s youth. He was among the 1970s wild men (so the story goes) who broke into a moribund Hollywood and gave American movies a new life. By presenting Hughes as a heedlessly creative maverick in a monopoly-run film business–that is, by making him not only Kane but also a tycoon version of Welles–Scorsese implicitly projects something of his own myth into The Aviator. Surely the film draws a portion of its exuberance from the director’s memories of his early, joyful breakthroughs, or from the audience’s recollections of them. And the foreboding, the deepening gloom, the frustration of energies thrown back on themselves, the sense of waste? That, too, may belong as much to Scorsese as to Welles, Kane or Hughes. The generation of the 1970s, having failed to “save Hollywood” (whatever that means), finds itself aging in Jerry Bruckheimer’s unlovely world. No wonder Scorsese now gathers his forces, as if in defiance, to hurl himself once more at cinematic glory.

He’d make it, too, if skill alone could carry him there. To the mad geometry of The Aviator‘s looping, zooming aerial shots, which are exhilarating to the point of hilarity, Scorsese adds the expansive musical comedy of nightclub sequences (an hommage, you’d think, to his own New York, New York), intensely played scenes of emotional breakdowns in men’s rooms (recalling Raging Bull), an agony in the screening room, complete with motion-picture stigmata (The Last Temptation of Hughes?) and the kind of male-female sparring that has figured in any number of his pictures. My point isn’t that Scorsese has done many of these things before but that he does them all so well in The Aviator, outperforming his own standards in some cases and establishing new ones in others. His directorial scope approaches the encyclopedic. Hughes’s 1946 plane crash in Beverly Hills becomes, in Scorsese’s hands, a time-stopping suspense montage, as formally complex as Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence, as luxuriant in its mayhem as the best of Irwin Allen. Hughes’s lunch in Connecticut with Katharine Hepburn and her family plays like a screwball comedy (another first for Scorsese, so far as I can recall), though a comedy that’s cut short when real pain rises to the surface.

I could go on and on listing the set pieces. But if you want to know what gives The Aviator a heartbeat, however intermittent, I’ll have to forget about Scorsese for a while and talk instead about Cate Blanchett.

In the role of Katharine Hepburn, she represents one of the very few people with whom Hughes ever formed an attachment. (That’s screenwriter John Logan’s assessment, at any rate.) Blanchett’s interplay with DiCaprio therefore provides The Aviator with the few chances it has to break out of solipsism into a semblance of life. In these scenes, Howard Hughes finally has someone other than Howard Hughes to think about, and so the movie focuses on her (to the audience’s great if momentary relief) while turning DiCaprio into a supporting actor. Blanchett becomes the star, not by virtue of looking like Hepburn (she doesn’t) but by a startling inner transformation. She strides about crisply, laughs in musical bleats, exclaims “Golly!” and “Hot dog!” with Yankee conviction, makes meals of her vowels; and these traits don’t strike you as mimicry (once you’ve gotten past your initial delight) but as natural expressions of a force, intelligence and probity that you accept as Hepburn’s own. Much of her dialogue has to do with her need to be wary; and yet whenever she’s on screen, you welcome her. She has a human touch.

Hughes, by contrast, envisions germs writhing and teeming on every fingertip around him. He shuns human contact–which means that you, too, eventually feel shut out by him, as Hughes devolves from a character into a psychiatric case study. Despite the challenge that this scheme presents for the actor, DiCaprio has many ways to engage you, from the sly, Henry Fonda-like pretense of humorlessness in his early scenes to a mute panic in the eyes later on, when Hughes loses control of his speech and can only look on in horror as his mouth talks on its own. The performance is big, varied and admirable, but it’s in the service of a fatalistic, and fatal, idea of the character: The Aviator turns Hughes into one of those brave souls who struggle against an affliction.

This is not something you can say about Charles Foster Kane. He brought himself low by exerting the very abilities that had raised him high. Orson Welles did the same (in legend, if not in fact); and so for that matter did Jake LaMotta. But Hughes in The Aviator bears no responsibility for his own downfall. It comes to him from outside: from a faulty gene that must have been passed down at conception, or from the attitudes instilled by an overprotective mother. Hughes–the conniving, skirt-chasing, redbaiting, director-bashing, studio-busting, filthy-rich sonofabitch–comes off by the end as a victim, begging for pity, inspiring no terror.

Questions of directorial virtuosity aside, this is no way for Scorsese to equal Citizen Kane. It lends Hughes sympathy by robbing him of power; it drains the helium from the balloon for the whole last hour. No artistic justification comes to mind for the decision–but if you think sociologically instead, and ask what The Aviator might have to say about contemporary life, then this version of Hughes begins to make sense.

He is the only type of film artist about whom you could reasonably make a big-budget movie nowadays: a businessman. He is a hero made for an era when every entrepreneur wants to be seen as creative, a Kane-Welles for the Miramax generation. If Harvey Weinstein were dashing and handsome, he would be this Hughes.

And if a strange illness were to render Harvey as helpless as Hughes becomes, so that his underlings could lock him in a shed for a while, Scorsese might feel thirty years younger.