***1/2 (out of five)

Warren Beatty’s fifth feature film as a director – and his first as an actor since Town and Country, sixteen years ago – is breezy, charming and fun fun fun. Like its auteur and its subject, it is simultaneously old-fashioned and au currant; its authentic retro-ness is also its badge of hip.

That subject is Howard Hughes, which is not to say that Hughes is the protagonist (as he was in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004).) That would be Hughes’ employee Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), a driver among Hughes’ stable of drivers hired to drive around Hughes’ stable of young female “starlets”, from the houses he put them up in to the ballet classes and beauty regimes he sent them to. The time is the 1960s, and Hughes’ ownership-like treatment of his young beauties – many of whom had yet to feature in a film during their incredibly weird apprenticeship – would be a throwback to a decades-ago studio contract system, if the studio contract system had been this strange.

Hughes himself was strange, and is portrayed as very much so by Beatty, who was 78 when he shot this but playing Hughes in his fifties. During the course of the film he develops a codeine addiction (the story spans six years) which seems to affect his judgement; he also had a raft of other mental difficulties, including pretty serious OCD, at least according to The Aviator. Being enormously wealthy, of course, he was called “eccentric” more often than “insane”, and “Mr. Hughes” by his multitude of employees even as he gave them ever more blatantly lunatic tasks.

As one of those employees, Frank has to abide by a raft of Hughes’ rules, one of which forbids assignations between the drivers and the “starlets”. The arrival of Marla Mabray (Lily Collins) throws a spanner in the works, as an attraction develops between her and Frank. Trouble is, she also has an intense fascination – a crush, really – on Hughes, setting the stage for a very tricky love triangle.

Collins is excellent, but Ehrenreich – who has been cast as the young Han Solo in the next Star Wars standalone – is sensational. He’s a Made Movie Star, as far as I’m concerned, purely on the basis of his performance here and in Hail, Caesar! He looks disarmingly like a young Leonardo DiCaprio (who played Hughes in The Aviator) but he looks smarter, and he’s funnier. He’s got it all, and I suspect he’s gonna get it all.

As for Beatty – he’s still got it, as an actor and a director. His Hughes is dynamic, funny and intriguing but refreshingly unsympathetic. The film is gorgeous – I mean, gorgeous – utilizing a heightened lighting style befitting a fable about Tinseltown. It’s generally zippy – the scenes are edited as leanly as is possible to imagine, giving new life to the adage “get in late, get out early”. But the third act lags and meanders, and its the screenplay’s fault. Beatty the writer was never as good as Beatty the actor, producer or director, and this effort shortchanges both the love story between Frank and Marla, and the character study of Hughes, by trying to do both at once. Still, it’s totally charming and absolutely worth two solid hours (and seven minutes, Hughes would be sure to add) of your time. Given his famously protracted deliberations, it is also almost certainly the last film we will ever get from Beatty the auteur. It’s a generous, warm, expansive and embraceable farewell.

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