Warren Beatty returns to the screen in Rules Don't Apply (2016), an enigmatic but moderately likeable comedy-drama with the actor - also the film's director and co-writer (with Bo Goldman) - in the pivotal role of billionaire Howard Hughes, a part Beatty had wanted to play for years. One can easily see why: Beatty surely identified with Hughes, who likewise dated several generations' worth of glamorous Hollywood stars and starlets, while enjoying nearly total control of the movies he made.
The first Hollywood bio of Hughes is still by far the best, the 1977 TV-movie The Amazing Howard Hughes, adapted from business partner Noah Dietrich's memoirs. That version originally ran three hours, though most versions today are cut by nearly an hour. Tommy Lee Jones, perfectly cast, played Hughes while Ed Flanders played Dietrich.
For Rules Don't Apply, Beatty and Goldman consciously wreak havoc with Hughes's timeline. The story is bookended with scenes set in 1964 about an event that actually happened in 1972. The remainder of the film is set in 1958, yet compresses events that actually happened over a 20-year period, between 1946 (his near-fatal crash of the XF-11) and 1966 (the sale of TWA). Most of Rules Don't Apply revolves around the starlets he keeps at the movie studio he owned, RKO, but Hughes sold that in 1954 and RKO was effectively out of the movie business by 1957 (its studios bought by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), the year before everything happens there in the movie.
Nevertheless, all this seems to jibe with a film that is as dizzyingly eccentric and confused as Hughes himself. He's not the central character, but the worlds starlet Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and chauffeur Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) orbit entirely around Hughes's compulsions and unpredictable, sometimes baffling whims, behavior today most think was the result of a codeine addiction that addled his genius.
Exactly what the picture is trying to accomplish isn't entirely clear. On one hand, it acknowledges Hughes's genius while his limitless wealth and ability to indulge in every eventually became a kind of prison for him. Rules Don't Apply, however, is primarily concerned with Frank and Marla. On one hand all the wealth and glamour is alluring and exciting, with never a dull or predictable moment, but it comes at the expense of completely suppressing natural human needs and behavior including, most obviously, natural human interaction and sex.
Frank and Marla are very ‘50s types, she a Baptist and he a deeply religious Methodist, his religion helping to win over Hughes's trust just as his Mormon caretakers would in years to follow. She's one of dozens of starlets Hughes has under contract to RKO that never get screen tested, let alone built up appearing in real movies. Instead, he keeps them stashed away in houses and bungalows all over Los Angeles on 24-hour call, with chauffeurs like Frank likewise ready to drive them to Mr. Hughes at a moment's notice.
Hughes is clearly nuts much of the time, making unreasonable demands that no one in his inner circle dare question. Matthew Broderick co-stars as Levar, another chauffeur who's been quietly suffering from Hughes's behavior for a long time. It's an interesting performance, as Broderick's character has become a kind of expert following Hughes's arbitrary rules and catering to his unreasonable demands as if they were perfectly normal and reasonable. When Levar ushers Marla to meet Hughes for the first time (in a darkened bungalow) she asks reasonable questions he's not allowed to answer honestly or at all, deflecting them with the dexterity of a seasoned White House Press Secretary,
Though not intended, it's hard not to watch Rules Don't Apply and not sympathize with the similar type of bewildering, frustrating subjugation by current White House staff at the beck and call of a madman. Are, the movie seems to ask, Marla and Frank willing to lock themselves away inside Hughes's self-styled prison? Marla fantasizes about becoming a film star while Frank has big dreams of land development he hopes to finance with Hughes's money, but pretty soon each realizes those things are never going to happen, that they really only have two choices: surrender completely to Hughes's madness and become permanent, full-time caretakers, or walk away into an uncertain, less glamorous, and less exciting future.
Beatty, nearly a decade older now than Hughes was when he died in 1976 at 70, can't resist giving Hughes a kind of eccentric charm, a contrast to Tommy Lee Jones's emotionally aloof, occasionally cold-hearted Hughes. But Beatty's is a reasonable take on the man, who could certainly charm others when he had to, and his little psychological rallying at the end of the film is almost touching.
Collins and Ehrenreich are fine in their parts, but I was struck by all the veteran actors in small parts, some of whom this reviewer hasn't otherwise seen in ages, particularly Dabney Coleman and Paul Sorvino. Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen, Steve Coogan, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen (as Noah Dietrich), Amy Madigan, and Oliver Platt also appear.
The movie also does an excellent job recreating Los Angeles circa the late 1950s, apparently some combination of archive sources and digital effects bring Hollywood Boulevard and other parts of the city back to vivid life.
Video & Audio
Filmed for 1.85:1 widescreen, Rules Don't Apply is up to contemporary standards, with a strong transfer emphasizing late 1950s primary colors. The DTS-HD Master Audio, 5.1, is likewise, with optional English and Spanish audio, and subtitles available in those languages. A standard DVD is included, along with UV, iTunes, and Google Play digital copies.
Supplements consist of the usual 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, music video, gallery, and trailer, nothing of exceptional interest.
Entertaining but ultimately as confused and enigmatic as its subject matter, Rules Don't Apply is moderately Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.