“Never check an interesting fact.” With these words, Warren Beatty returns to the silver screen, after a fifteen-year absence, in his film Rules Don’t Apply. They are, we’re told, the words of Howard Hughes, the mercurial movie producer and aviation industrialist known as much for folly and madness as for his impressive financial empire.
They might as well be the words of our President-elect, whose own demeanor suggests power-madness, and it’s tempting to think Beatty intended some sideways commentary. Then again, writer-director-producer-star Beatty’s passion project has been gestating for four decades, and wrapped shooting in 2014. In his screenplay and performance as Hughes, Beatty offers a canny, sharply drawn, and highly personal take on the billionaire, with strong elements of lacerating self-parody. The longstanding movie star seems to empathize with Hughes in his second-guessed genius and compulsive, quirky hedonism (from sex with starlets to foil-covered TV dinners), while hardly letting him off the hook for his stunningly selfish failures of personal and professional ethics.
As its epigraph suggests, Rules Don’t Apply doesn’t let niggling historical details get in the way of a good story. That said, Beatty’s fascination with and thorough research on Hughes inform a surprisingly fresh perspective on Hughes and what it must have been like to live in his orbit, circa 1958, in Hollywood. For the most part, this spells comedy, with Hughes unwittingly taking two fresh-faced innocents on parallel journeys from naïve, eager-to-please idealism to hard-won, clear-eyed realism.
Alden Ehrenreich plays Frank Forbes, a driver for the Hughes organization and would-be-entrepeneur who hopes to interest his boss in a housing-development scheme. While waiting for an audience with the boss, Frank becomes the go-to driver for Baptist girl turned actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), one of Hughes’ large stable of aspiring starlets. Much of the story’s tension comes from the twin certainties that the attractive, young Frank and Marla will develop feelings for one another, and that Hughes will call upon Marla for a sexual dalliance. Both scenarios play into the titular theme of flexible ethics and selfish entitlement: a little bit of power goes a long way to ambition, and a great deal of power knows no bounds.
This all plays out in Beatty’s distinctively intelligent and sly filmmaking voice, with comically curt editing choices and something approaching a screwball style. At 79, Beatty remains tack-sharp as an actor (here subtly nailing Hughes’ brilliance and battiness), and as a director of calculated tone. Five-time Oscar nominee Caleb Deschanel supplies gorgeous cinematography that nicely evokes period and supports, in its framing, the film’s dramatic and comedic elements (case in point: Hughes and Frank’s pre-dawn airfield lunch date, shot to emphasize its enormity and surreality).
Beatty also attracts top acting talent, even in one-scene roles. Most prominent among the supporting cast are Matthew Broderick (hilarious as another of Hughes’ driver-confidants) and Beatty’s wife Annette Bening (very funny as Marla’s rightly concerned mother), but the film also benefits from the skills of Candice Bergen, Alec Baldwin, Steve Coogan, Martin Sheen, and so on. It’s probably fair to deem the story slight, with little in the way of universal relevance, but it’s also delightfully entertaining, and well attuned to the struggle of contending with a destabilizing influence on one’s work life and, worse, one’s personal life.