As Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) arrives in Hollywood in 1958, she’s swept into a series of places under the direction of world-famous millionaire Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty). This involves a significant amount of time spent with a young driver working for Hughes, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), who has his own dreams of developing land alongside Hughes. The two begin to fall for each other, but are kept apart by Hughes’ strict rules regarding relationships between his actresses and other people in his employ. The budding relationship is further complicated by Hughes’ own growing involvement in both of their lives.
In some form, a Howard Hughes biopic has been a passion project for Beatty for roughly three decades. If anything was going to pull him out of retirement – it’s his first on-screen appearance in 15 years, and his first time directing in close to 20 – it was going to be this project. But the final result is sadly lacking. To Beatty’s credit, he gives a fully engaged performance, and the years of retirement haven’t diminished his acting ability. But this is an odd project that plays with facts regarding Hughes’ life to fit the narrative, and it can’t seem to decide if Beatty is a background character or the star of the show. It doesn’t help that Frank and Marla are rather dull characters, in spite of the generally good Ehrenreich and Collins landing those roles. In addition to a script that doesn’t always work, though, Beatty’s directorial work is also lacking. The film jumps from scene to scene in a way that’s too quick for the slower pace that’s meant to reflect films of this era. Scenes are either not allowed to breathe, or breathe far too much. Beatty is an accomplished talent who has earned his right to do what he wants, but it turns out that maybe some general rules for making a good film do in fact apply.