Director Warren Beatty has wanted to do a biopic about Howard Hughes for years. After Scorsese put together “The Aviator” more than a decade ago, I thought he would have abandoned the project. Instead, it seems he retooled it to focus on a different aspect of the legendary billionaire’s life, and turned it into a fantasy love story where the main figure is only tangentially a part of the romance. Hughes is the most interesting character in this film, but he is not the lead. Earlier this year I thought that “Swiss Army Man” might be the strangest film I saw in 2016, we now have a worthy competitor for that title.
This movie is a disjointed drama which takes strong comedic elements and focuses on them without maintaining the tone very well. Hughes’ eccentricities are a big part of what drives the story, and the greatest asset the film has is Beatty’s performance as the sometimes manic genius/playboy that could give Tony Stark a few lessons in arrogance. Beatty is sometimes genial and quiet as he interacts with the two young people who have entered his sphere. He seems quirky and charming but not particularly mad. As the story goes on though, the quirks become obsessions and the charm turns into dangerous mania. Beatty has been a notoriously odd interview subject for his whole career. In a Rolling Stone story in the early 1990s, his pauses and quirks were the featured players and deserved their own story. What he has done here is turn those peculiarities into a character that fits the billionaire eccentric to a tea. His performance is a combination of befuddle silences and questioning expressions as he sits in semi-dark locations and frequently refuses to interact with his business associates and confidants. I’m not sure how much is acting and how much is just Beatty putting his real self in front of the camera.
The two young people who mix in the life of Hughes are Alden Ehrenreich’s Frank Forbes, an ambitious young Methodist from Fresno and Lily Collins who plays Marla Mabrey, a contest winner from Virginia. Both of them are employees of Howard but in very different capacities. She is a contract player for a film that Hughes appears to have no intention of ever producing, while he is a driver for her and eventually Hughes himself. When the story is about the budding attraction they feel for each other and the complications of their religious upbringing, is is a mildly dull romance. When Hughes stirs things up, it becomes more interesting but it takes so long to get to that point, and once we do, there are so many tangents that get followed, that the story loses any focus. Except for the song that Collins writes, we don’t really get why Howard is drawn to Marla, except that she might be venereal disease free.
The film is loaded with stuff that I would like regardless of the subject. Most of it is centered in Southern California and Las Vegas in the late 50’s and early 60’s. As stock footage of Hollywood Boulevard from the era is rolled out in the background, I could remember the look of the locations myself, having spent a lot of time in Hollywood as a kid. There are some very nice touches as the town becomes a player in the story. The house where Marla awaits her big chance is in the hills above the Hollywood Bowl, so he nights are filled with classical music from the L.A. Philharmonic. Palm Springs is referred to as a dream destination for weekends out of town. And the Beverly Hills Hotel, which still looks much the way it did at the time, becomes a place where Hughes can play hide and seek from the people he needs to speak with but won’t. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel gives an appropriate romantic era look to the proceedings which also does a lot to sell the movie.
The problems with the film are it’s pacing and schizophrenic story telling. There are truly moments of pleasure as the story develops, but in the end it feels like the life Hughes himself must have lead, chaotic and neurotic. The charm of the actors is not really enough to make the film come alive and it meanders around, showing a great sense of style but without any purpose. I’m glad I saw this but I can’t say it is a good film. For every moment of wonder and joy, there are two that just induce shoulder shrugging and impatience.