Greeted with indifference from a film-going ‘demo’ largely unaware of Howard Hughes or Warren Beatty, this long gestating vanity project for its writer/director/producer/star is less a MISS than a WHY. Sadly so, since the final product (in spite of feeling as if it were still being re-edited as you watch) has enough merit to win contact; charming & funny, if more often melancholy, as Beatty mourns the lost Hollywood of his youth. (The timeline starts in 1959 when Beatty was in tv’s DOBIE GILLIS.) The basic idea, presumably in Bo Goldman’s original treatment (keep in mind Goldman hasn’t had an official film credit in two decades), seems to have been a sort of passing of the torch story with Beatty as the increasingly eccentric billionaire with too much on his plate, including moribund studio RKO, functioning as serendipitous matchmaker to a couple of Christian kids come to tinseltown to make good: Lily Collins, dreadful, with Liz Taylor eyebrows; Alden Ehrenreich, a James Dean brooder but with an easy charm. The blueprint? Likely George Stevens’ THE MORE THE MERRIER/’43. (Stevens’ career ended on the flop Beatty/Taylor ONLY GAME IN TOWN/’70. Also, MERRIER got remade by Beatty idol Cary Grant in his last film, WALK DON’T RUN/’66.) But something must have changed in development as the film took on more of Hughes’ rapid decline from eccentricity & paranoia to madness/dementia. And with Beatty, who’s pushing 80, as the fifty-something Hughes, the dye-job and darkened rooms make his skittish wooing of Collins extra uncomfortable. It may also explain the misuse of Mahler's Sym. #5: ‘Adagietto’ as her ‘theme’ music. And boy!, does he ever lay it on. Even more than Luchino Visconti did when he plugged it into his film of Thomas Mann’s DEATH IN VENICE/’71. All is revealed at the end, with Beatty exposed sans beauty regiment, looking grim and out-of-it. We’ve been watching DEATH IN HOLLYWOOD and haven’t known it. Along the way, an embarrassment of talent working at indecently small roles; except for Matthew Broderick who's not at all wasted in a gem of a perf. And if Beatty the actor is his usual uneven self, he does have a sublime moment singing a la Al Jolson. Too bad, seeing him briefly throw caution to the winds has the effect of highlighting all the wasted years.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Cinematographer/director Caleb Deschanel gets some great ‘60s flavor when he’s not hiding Beatty in shadows. But nothing competes with the period shots of LA. & Vegas back in the day. (Color by Deluxe®?) One marquee near Grauman’s Chinese advertises THE KING & I/’56 which is off by three years.
DOUBLE-BILL: For real Howard Hughes insight: Max Ophüls’ CAUGHT/’49; Jonathan Demme’s MELVIN AND HOWARD/’80.