Warren Beatty makes his return to directing after a 16-year absence in The Rules Don’t Apply. In a case of one Hollywood legend playing another, Beatty himself also takes the part of eccentric Howard Hughes, recluse, aviator and billionaire mogul.
Flitting back and forth around the the mid-60s and late-50s the film also concerns one of Hughes’ young starlets, prim Baptist Marla Mabrey, (played by button-pretty Lilly Collins), and her arrival in LA with the promise of starring in Stella Starlight for the great man.
Marla strikes up a relationship with young chauffeur Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), who shows her around town and warns her of all the rules laid down by Hughes – one of which stipulates that the actress’s chauffeurs slow down at bumps in the road to avoid movement of the passengers’ “unsupported parts”.
The film is good on little details of Hughes’ eccentricities, such as his method of pay slips being dropped from windows, his lookalike decoys, his labyrinthine exits and entrances.
He’s like a Godot figure, on whom everyone is waiting without daring to get fed up, such is his wealth and power to make dreams come true for actresses, bankers, speculators, even Presidents.
The movie, for all its charms, becomes a frustrating oddity – sometimes comic and cute, but increasingly depressed and oppressive as Hughes’s mania increases and his danger ratchets up: “Give me my pilots’ jacket,” he trills on a whim, “We’re going to Nicaragua…” It’s as if the story itself can’t contain him.
Former lothario Beatty must be aware of the iconography. “If there is reincarnation, I wanna come back as Warren Beatty’s fingertips, “ goes an old Woody Allen gag – and Hughes’ leering control over his starlets is creepy. And as the film moves along, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to make of his madness, his bumbling business decisions, and craving for banana nut ice cream – “Buy all of it,” he barks.
Yet this is also an affectionate nod to old Hollywood, the one Beatty would have caught the tail end of before his films such as Bonnie and Clyde ushered in a new, post-studio era.
There are cameos from Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Oliver Platt and Steve Coogan which keep things interesting but the problem remains – we never quite get the heart of anyone or any story. Rules might not apply when you’re Howard Hughes or indeed Warren Beatty, but they sure help out a movie.