★★

After a very long wait for Warren Beatty’s next film, which has been decades in gestation, Rules Don’t Apply finally limps into cinemas. His return as writer, producer, director and star of this comedy drama about the fabled eccentricities of billionaire industrialist and movie mogul Howard Hughes, shows us that in his 80th year, that once golden touch has lost its lustre.

In the decade-and-a-half since his last film appearance in the much-maligned comedy Town & Country, and the eighteen years since he last directed (the sharp political satire Bulworth), Beatty has essentially relinquished his status as one of Hollywood’s key players. Where older audiences might recall a string of game-changing performances in classics like Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe & Mrs Miller and Shampoo, or indeed the extraordinary directorial ambition and accomplishment of his Oscar-winning historical saga Reds, a younger generation may barely recognise the slightly doddery old gent who was bamboozled by this year’s Oscar ceremony snarl-up.

With all the will in the world, Beatty just hasn’t been able to match his previous achievements here. Set largely in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, the film is both Beatty’s portrait of the ageing, deeply paranoid Hughes and a tale of bristling young love as Alden Ehrenreich, an ambitious chauffeur in the magnate’s employ, makes eyes at contract starlet ingénue Lily Collins (even though the boss has strictly prohibited such fraternisation).

Just how Hughes runs a whole school of female wannabes, keeping them in houses all over Hollywood but never actually making any movies, and also sustains his aerospace interests without venturing beyond a darkened hotel suite or actually meeting anyone beyond his core staff, gives the story some initial fascination. The youthful romance angle, as raging hormones battle against her Christian values of virginal propriety, isn’t desperately fascinating in itself, however, and although Beatty toys with expectations by keeping Hughes off-screen for the first 25 minutes, the more we do see of him the harder it is to know what to make of his portrayal.

On the one hand, Beatty seems to be putting the kibosh on his own reputation for vanity, by showing us Hughes approaching dotage as he struggles with a hearing aid, keeps repeating himself and fixates on minutiae like a particular flavour of ice cream. There is sympathy here for an all-American go-getter now in a somewhat reduced state, yet the hints of Hughes as an old lecher (and perhaps Beatty?) in his scenes with 20-something Collins are uneasy indeed. Meanwhile attempts to wring madcap humour from Hughes’s unpredictable foibles also fall seriously wide of the mark.

So, it all drags on like some party piece that long outstays its welcome, and notwithstanding a hint of pathos over Hughes’s lingering grief for his late father, the overall point of the exercise remains elusive. There is lots of plush vintage art direction to enjoy, but ultimately the shapeless form of the film, uncertain tone and somewhat vague central performance lead us to the conclusion that in illustrating the declining Hughes’s sad befuddlement, Beatty has shown us rather too much of his own.

Rules Don't Apply opens in cinemas on Friday 21st April