Review: Warren Beatty’s long-awaited Howard Hughes picture ‘Rules Don’t Apply’ never takes off

Film Critic

“Rules Don’t Apply,” as its name implies, is a movie intent on going its own way. It’s not without its charms, but there aren’t enough of them and they don’t readily cohere. Interesting rather than involving, it pretty much dares you to insist that the strictures of storytelling need apply to its own narrative structure.

Given that Warren Beatty is the project’s writer, director, producer and star, that is perhaps not a surprise. Now 79, Beatty has made a career out of subverting norms, so few will be shocked that his latest film does the same. But that doesn’t mean he’s as successful here as in something like “Reds.”

Beatty’s first directing foray since 1998’s “Bulworth,” “Rules Don’t Apply” is in part the filmmaker’s much anticipated Howard Hughes project. But sometime during that story’s decades-long gestation period, an entirely different narrative was added on, the tale of two attractive young people who fall under Hughes’ spell as well as each other’s.

Not a crafty Hollywood veteran for nothing, Beatty has cast the film well, starting with himself as the wily, elusive billionaire whose time in the movie business was as focused on wooing actresses as producing pictures.

Playing the aforementioned young couple are the promising Lily Collins, one of the leads in Billy Ray’s “The Last Tycoon” Amazon series, and the already arrived Alden Ehrenreich, cast as the young Han Solo in the next “Star Wars” film after a marvelous turn as cowboy Hobie Doyle in the Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!”


Supporting this trio is a blizzard of well-known costars — Alec Baldwin, Annette Bening, Candice Bergen, Matthew Broderick, Steve Coogan, Ed Harris, Oliver Platt, Martin Sheen — an assemblage that speaks to Beatty’s place in the Hollywood firmament.

Just as impressive are the behind the camera talent, including complete masters of craft like cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, production designer Jeannine Oppewall and costume designer Albert Wolsky, who combine to give us a splendid re-creation of Hollywood in the late ‘50s that might be the film’s strongest element.

“Rules Don’t Apply” begins not there but in 1964 with a sequence (likely inspired by the real-life 1972 imbroglio with Clifford Irving) of journalists waiting for a phone call from the publicity-averse Hughes, who has been avoiding human contact for years, to confirm or deny the authenticity of a purported autobiography.

Then we flash back to Los Angeles five years and four months earlier, with the arrival of young, innocent and ambitious Marla Mabrey (Collins), the latest of a string of Hughes contract players to hope to succeed in Hollywood.

A former Apple Blossom Queen from Front Royal, Va., who likes to write songs as well as act, Marla is accompanied by her staunchly Baptist mother Lucy (Bening), who is dazzled by the hillside home just overlooking the Hollywood Bowl that Hughes has provided.

Driving mother and daughter in from the airport is another ambitious new Hughes hire, the staunchly Methodist Fresno native Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich), who is engaged to a girl back home and is as determined to be a success in business as Marla is in the movies.

These two young people are clearly attracted to each other but held back by Hughes’ strict non-fraternization rule: drivers are forbidden to have any kind of relationship with a contract actress. And one more thing unites them as well: they both have considerable difficulty getting face time with the pathologically unavailable Mr. Hughes.

As the individual in question, Beatty does a fascinating job creating a man of raffish charm who is simultaneously eccentric, charismatic and distracted, a man no one ever says no to who is gradually allowing his unchecked neuroses to take over his life. This person is worthy of a picture all his own, but instead he flits in and out of Marla and Frank’s film, causing chaos but never seeming to belong.

For while “Rules Don’t Apply” knows how to set the table, it has trouble delivering a completely satisfying meal, never overcoming the fact that despite everyone’s efforts the Hughes story and the complicated romance do not seem to be from the same film.

Ever the proud father, writer-director Beatty is equally indulgent to both halves of the drama, but that doesn’t help. Strong individual work is evident, but story lines meander, energy is lacking and nothing ignites the way you’d like it to. Like Howard Hughes himself, complete success for “Rules Don’t Apply” is just out of reach.

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