“Rules Don’t Apply” star and director Warren Beatty wants you to know that his latest film is not a biopic of Howard Hughes. The legendary Hollywood figure—Beatty not Hughes, although the term could ply to either—has long wanted to make a movie about the reclusive billionaire but this isn’t it. Instead it is a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of 1950s Tinsel Town in which Hughes is not the star, just the most interesting character.
Lily Collins plays Marla Mabrey, a Southern Baptist girl with dreams of being a Hollywood star. A contract with Hughes’ RKO Pictures got her halfway there, now she needs to meet Hughes (Beatty) and get a part. Until then Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a personal chauffeur assigned by RKO escorts her around town to make sure she stays out of trouble. “If you don’t drive them, you can’t keep your eye on them.”
Romance soon blooms, leaving the two in a perilous spot as both their contract stipulate that they won’t become involved with members of the extended Hughes corporate family.
Meanwhile Hughes remains an elusive, shadowy figure in Marla’s life. The eccentric businessman is juggling dozens of starlets, who he has stashed all over town, some bankers with $400 million in ready cash and a hostile takeover by his business partners. Hughes’s antics and obsessions with everything from the Spruce Goose to Baskin-Robbins’ banana-nut ice cream, keep the young lovers separated but will the oddball’s behaviour change their lives?
“Rules Don’t Apply” isn’t a biopic—the movie telegraphs this with an opening quote from Hughes: “Never check an interesting fact”—or a farce or, strictly a romantic comedy. For better and for worse it is its own thing, a nostalgic Warren Beatty film that basks in the glow of old Hollywood courtesy of DP Caleb Deschanel and terrific costume and set design. As a look back to what Los Angeles was like when Beatty first hit town it’s an engaging slice of ephemera. Unfortunately, the story and the characters are slightly less engaging.
Collins and Ehrenreich are charismatic, interesting actors who make the most of the moments offered them. Trouble is, the film too often shifts focus. Is it the story of Marla’s ambition, of Frank’s potential get rich quick scheme, or Hughes’s foibles? It’s all that and feels cluttered, as though not all the moving parts are necessary to keep the movie’s engine in gear. It never quite works up the head of steam it needs to commit fully to its farce DNA, but when it works it works very well.
In front of the camera Beatty shines as Hughes, reminding us why he became a movie star in the first place. Confident and bold this is a much different Hughes than we saw in “The Aviator.” Beatty’s take on the character is a broad, often comedic, occasionally tragic look at a man trying to stop both his personal and professional life from unravelling.
Behind the camera Beatty gives us moments to savour. When Marla’s mom (Annette Bening) announces they must leave Hollywood, her daughter hugs her and sweetly says, “I’ll help you pack.” It’s a sly bit of character work, simply staged that tells us that Marla has the strength to cut her mother loose in pursuit of her dream.
“Rules Don’t Apply” is a handsome movie that lives up to its name. The strict rules of romantic comedy, drama and biography don’t apply here. It’s a wistful confection, sometimes frothy, sometimes idiosyncratic, that feels like it might have sprung from the era it portrays.