It’s been fifteen years since Warren Beatty has appeared in a movie, and nearly twenty since he last directed a film, but Beatty returns to film—in front of and behind the camera—with Rules Don’t Apply, his long-gestating Howard Hughes movie. On the one hand, it’s a reminder of what a unique presence Beatty is, as both actor and director, but on the other it’s also a case study of what happens when you dwell a little too long on one cinematic subject. Rules Don’t Apply is a mostly charming throwback romantic comedy, and a largely entertaining biopic of Howard Hughes, but it’s also a mess. Beatty definitely knew how he wanted this movie to look, I’m less sure he really knew what he wanted it to say.

For being “Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes movie”, Hughes—played by Beatty—doesn’t show up until almost a half an hour in. It seems that, when faced with such an expansive and domineering character, Beatty decided to use the side door and grounds his movie on Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, tapping into the same Art Deco suavity that he did for Hail, Caesar!), and Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a couple of young upstarts in Hughes’s employ.

Frank dreams of being an entrepreneur, like Hughes, and Marla is a Virginia beauty queen brought to Hollywood to join Hughes’s harem of starlets he has stashed around the city. Frank is assigned to be Marla’s driver, and the two immediately start making calf eyes at one another, but a strict no-inter-office-dating rule of Hughes’s keeps them apart.

That, and their religion. She’s devoutly Baptist, he’s less devoutly Methodist. Both young people come to Hughes as moral and driven, but the longer they spend in Hughes’s sphere of influence—and the more direct contact they get with their eccentric boss—the more their principles start dropping by the wayside, until inevitably both have compromised their once ironclad morals. It’s not a bad theme, but it weakens dramatically once Hughes enters the picture and takes it over.

Ehrenreich and Collins acquit themselves well, dealing with some clunky dialogue—courtesy Beatty, who also wrote the script—but otherwise enjoying playing characters in a throwbacky mid-century romance. Rules isn’t just set in the 1950s, it’s made to feel like a classic film, with exaggerated theatrical characters and old-school film techniques like rear projection and background matte painting being used. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (who lensed The Black Stallion, a beautifully shot film and a masterclass unto itself) lights and shoots Rules flawlessly—it really does look and feel like a film from a previous era.

But it’s Beatty who defines it, once he finally makes his appearance as Hughes. His storytelling might be a little wobbly, but his acting is spot on. He portrays Hughes in the latter part of his life, when he’s already withdrawing from public life and becoming increasingly isolated as his mental health deteriorates. Beatty, with his bona fide Movie Star aura, plays Hughes as a tremendously charismatic man who sucks everyone near him into his self-destructive orbit, for better or worse—mostly worse.

The secret weapon of Rules is Matthew Broderick as Levar Mathis, Hughes’s long-suffering assistant, and Candice Bergen as Nadine, Hughes’s secretary. Nothing against Ehrenreich and Collins, who are charming in and of themselves, but the best stuff in Rules is the long-suffering patience and indulgence of Hughes’s devoted personal staff. Levar throws temper tantrums just like his mercurial boss, and Broderick is so funny and such a great match for Beatty as a scene partner that Levar is ten times as entertaining as Frank. And Candice Bergen is grossly underutilized.

Rules Don’t Apply is a good reminder of everything Warren Beatty has to offer as an actor and filmmaker, but Howard Hughes proves overwhelming as a subject and he can’t quite focus his film to form a cohesive story around the man. Beatty’s performance shows all the care and interest in Hughes he has nurtured for decades, but his script and the film itself show that he couldn’t quite pin down Hughes as a subject. Rules Don’t Apply has moments of being a cute rom-com, and at other times is a fascinating character study of genius running out of control, but the sum total is a messy, slightly out of focus portrait of a larger than life man.

Attached - Warren Beatty and Lily Collins at the Rules Don't Apply premiere in San Francisco earlier this week.