A film focusing on a meticulous and eccentric legend who’s bedded scores of women would seem to be right up Warren Beatty’s alley, but Rules Don’t Apply is a rather big letdown for the director’s first effort in nearly two decades. It’s a passion project for Mr. Beatty that partially focuses on the life of reclusive aviation and movie making billionaire Howard Hughes. Unlike the Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio biopic The Aviator, however, Rules isn’t nearly as concerned with historical accuracy and is as much an old-fashioned Hollywood romance.
Beatty plays Hughes circa 1958-1964, a time where his OCD and reliance on pharmaceutical relief had reached massive levels. He’s still running RKO Pictures and flying girls in from all over the country for screen tests. One such prospect is Marla (Lily Collins), a devout Baptist from Virginia who flies into La La Land with her equally proper mother (Beatty’s spouse Annette Bening). She’s never had a drink, never “gone all the way” (as is the common term in this screenplay), and certainly never met a character like Mr. Hughes. Frank (Alden Ehrenreich) is one of Hughes’s many chauffeurs who’s actually yet to meet the man himself. He’s tasked with driving Marla around and they soon begin a courtship, even though Frank is engaged to his childhood sweetheart.
Further complications arise when Hughes (who strictly forbids such interaction between his many employees) gets to know Marla better. The screenplay (by Beatty and his longtime collaborator Bo Goldman) juggles the romance with some of Howard’s business and government dealings as his abnormal behavior continues to increase. We do not see the grotesque and totally shut off character that DiCaprio showed us a dozen years ago in his Oscar nominated role. Rules is much lighter stuff and feels considerably less consequential.
Some welcome comedic hey is made of the many people who wait on Hughes hand and foot, including Matthew Broderick’s assistant and Candice Bergen’s secretary. There’s many familiar faces who pop up in smaller roles (most of them likely just wanted to work with Beatty) and they include Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, and Oliver Platt.
Part of the problem is that while Collins and Ehrenreich are perfectly fine in their performances, their chemistry is adequate at best. A bigger issue is that Rules feels a bit all over the map in plot and tone. The arc of Howard’s disintegration into madness is an odd mix of humor and drama that never gels despite Beatty’s best efforts. It’s also hard to ignore that he’s about 20 years older than Hughes at this particular point in his life, but if anyone can pull that off…
For a director who’s known to be incredibly particular, this one contains only fleeting moments that you’ll remember. The rest, sadly, don’t apply.
** (out of four)