Warren Beatty has been wanting to make a movie about Howard Hughes since the 1970s, and it's no wonder why he felt an affinity for the eccentric billionaire. Both Beatty and Hughes were dashing Hollywood men with an endless supply of women and a disdain for the spotlight. (For Beatty, that just meant a general dislike of the press and avoidance of interviews; for Hughes, it meant going for years without being seen at all.)
But Warren Beatty is pushing 80 now, so the chance to make a movie about all of Hughes' life has passed. (And has already been done, with Martin Scorsese's ). So Rules Don't Apply isn't really a Howard Hughes biopic as much as it is a Hollywood romance with Howard Hughes as a sort of looming, dominant, almost godlike force that's sometimes front and center, but is more often sitting hidden behind a wall, or a curtain, or the door to a screening room.
Covering fours years, the movie starts in 1964, but then bounces back to 1960, where we meet Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and her mother Lucy (Annette Benning), who have just arrived in Los Angeles. Marla is a good Virginia Baptist girl, a beauty contest-winner who has been granted a movie contract with Hughes' RKO Pictures studio. She soon learns she's one of dozens of girls, all under contract and living in fully furnished homes paid for by Hughes, who are all wondering when and if they'll ever actually meet him, let alone get a film role.
Marla's driver is Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), a good Fresno Methodist whose big goal in life is real estate, but who finds himself drawn further and further into Hughes' inner circle. Frank is also developing feelings for Marla, but their religions, paired with Hughes' insistence that the drivers never date the actresses, are impediments.
Any fan of post-war Hollywood glamour won't be disappointed by Rules Don't Apply's gorgeous recreation. The costumes, cars, and sets are a vintage lover's dream, and had me so enraptured I could almost overlook the fact that the movie I was watching is a bit of a mess.
Beatty seems unsure if he wants the story to be about Hughes or about the young lovers, so he never gives full focus to either. At about the middle mark, the film begins to center a bit more on Hughes and his increasingly erratic behavior, which, while fueled by genuine mental illness, is mostly played for laughs. And granted, some of those moments are really, really funny. Beatty has always had keen comedic timing, and there's one scene centered on a 26 page memo to the police department about a missing cat that stretches so far past the breaking point that it springs back and becomes one of the funniest things I've seen all year.
I have a feeling Beatty was well aware he was too old to be playing the 60-ish Hughes, as a vast majority of his scenes are shot in shadow or dim lighting. And while that might do some to hide his obvious age, it does nothing for his looks, instead reducing his eyes to black, devilish orbs in the darkness, a vision all the more creepy when it comes to the inevitable love scene between Hughes and his starlet. (This is a Warren Beatty movie. You didn't think he wasn't going to make out with the ingenue, did you?)
As tends to be the case these days, it was hard to view Rules Don't Apply through anything but the lens of our current climate. After all, it features a rich, temperamental businessman, likely completely crazy, who views women as property. And I imagine many who worked for Hughes felt the same way: It could actually be kind of funny...if our lives didn't depend on him keeping his shit together.The Aviator.