Amelia

The new biopic about Amelia Earhart, Amelia, succeeds in portraying the famous aviatrix in a whole new light ... as a mundane soap-opera character with relationship issues. The movie looks beautiful and is obviously being released now with Oscar hopes, but it is a dull, uninspired recounting of the less interesting parts of Earhart's life.

The plot is structured around Earhart's final attempt at flying around the world, then flashes back to tell her story starting from her first meeting with George P. Putnam (Richard Gere) in 1927 about a transatlantic flight, and looping back to that final flight and the mystery surrounding it, in 1937. It's a standard structure for biographical films, but is confusing at times. For one thing, I couldn't tell you whether the round-the-world attempt that the film flashes forward to periodically is her first one, or her last one. Near the end, they start to blend confusingly. The film also includes a lot of voice-over from Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank), which I presume is probably taken from her real-life letters and diaries.

One problem with biopics is that they are too predictable, especially when they are about well-known figures. I would assume that most of us know what ultimately happened to Earhart, and the last half-hour of the movie trudges toward that mysterious ending in such a slow and deliberate manner that I kept peeking at my watch to figure out how long before she vanished. I may have hoped she would vanish more quickly. I also kind of hoped that the movie would take some incredible liberty with history and give us a completely surprising and fictitious twist ending. So many people have come up with wild and crazy theories about what happened to Earhart, and all of them are more interesting than this movie.

The element of interest that director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair) has tried to add to Amelia to keep us surprised isn't related to her career aspirations or her childhood, it's about her romantic life. She has to choose between Putnam and the dashing Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor). Perhaps writers Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan thought adultery would help us see what an unconventional free spirit she was, but it makes her look quite ordinary and adds little insight into her character. It also means that this may not be a movie you want to take children to see, which is too bad because Earhart's career in aviation still makes her a great role model for young girls. Take them to Whip It instead if you want to treat them to a fun movie with female empowerment.

Swank looks very much like Earhart, although her blonde pixie cut and freckles appear to be stolen from Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap, and her accent and demeanor are so very Katharine Hepburn that I was surprised to hear she was from Kansas. She walks and talks like a fiercely independent woman, but she doesn't radiate much in the way of passion or energy. Also, the movie knocks down feminist ideals about Earhart: she wears trousers only because she thinks her legs are ugly, and when Eleanor Roosevelt hints at putting in her name for a big aviation job, Amelia recommends her boyfriend instead. Richard Gene is reduced to nothing more than a lovestruck older man with a love for promotion and PR.

The movie seems to skim past any interesting moments or ideas to get back to the big dreary romance. In one scene, Amelia admires a lovely woman in a restaurant -- what's behind that? She occasionally meets with Elinor Smith, an even younger, more eager aviatrix -- what happens to her? (Her story, especially late in life, might make an even better biopic.) She's fond of Gene's son, but then why doesn't she have children of their own? Perhaps the movie is focusing on the wrong parts of Earhart's life, or the wrong people in it, but I keep feeling like we're missing the good stuff.

I am a sucker for any movie with 1920s and 1930s fashions in it, and Amelia didn't disappoint my desire for lovely vintage costumes, whether they were trouser suits or cloche hats or aviatrix outfits (although nothing tops Katharine Hepburn's glittering outfit in Christopher Strong). And I did like the short scene with Eleanor Roosevelt. But Amelia spends nearly two long hours with the almost iconic pilot and by the end of the film, I felt like I actually knew less about her, rather than more.