“I don’t appear in public very often, but I think I should go out more.”
So says Howard Hughes, the legendary and mysterious industrialist, to an impressionable young child at the conclusion of “Rules Don’t Apply.” The same can be said for Warren Beatty, the notoriously reclusive and quiet actor (and director, writer and producer) who portrays Hughes in the film. This is Beatty’s first directorial effort since 1998’s “Bulworth,” and his first acting role since 2001’s “Town & Country.” In other words, it has been a long time coming for fans of the mid-to-late-century icon. The film, too, has been gestating for a long time — Beatty allegedly began developing it after an encounter with Hughes in the early 1970s. But development hell can, appropriately, be damning, and the film’s disjointed screenplay sometimes infringes on its time-tested material (see “The Aviator” for Hughes, “Hail, Caesar!” for 1950s Hollywood).
It’s 1958. Dwight Eisenhower is the country’s president, Marilyn Monroe its biggest star. Church membership soars as businesses rapidly expand. The U.S. is fighting the Soviet Union, with nuclear fears abounding. In Hollywood the studio system reins, firmly controlling its stars, both fresh-faced and weathered.
Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins, “Mirror Mirror”), an aspiring young actress, arrives in Hollywood from a strict Baptist upbringing in Virginia. Mabrey is under contract at RKO, which itself is run by Hughes (though the film gets the timeline wrong: Hughes in fact sold the studio in 1955). She and her mother, lovingly played by Annette Bening (“The Kids Are All Right”), are driven by Frank Forbes (the absolutely wonderful Alden Ehrenreich, “Hail, Caesar!”), another new Hughes hire and a relatively devout Methodist.
Though forbidden by Hughes’s bans on hanky-panky between drivers and stars, as well as their respective religiosity (Forbes is, in fact, engaged), the two quickly develop a passionate relationship, bonding over shared professional shame over their distance from their boss, the illustrious Hughes. But as the two continue to establish themselves in the business, and grow closer to Hughes in unexpected ways, their lives grow increasingly complicated. They begin to question social mores and their place at RKO.
Much like the two’s time in Hollywood, “Rules Don’t Apply” itself can be sliced into two halves. The first is one of enchantment; tightly edited and beautifully shot, Hollywood is a land of expansive opportunity and one of its titans, Hughes, is reserved to mysteriously dark spaces. The second is one of disillusionment, or perhaps the erraticism that plagues Hughes. The bonds among Hughes, Forbes and Mabrey are strained and tested, and an intoxicating high of an all-too-rare encounter with a legend in front of the camera fizzles into a throbbing hangover. Scenes drag on for far longer than necessary, or they only add more material to the convoluted plot. The laughs (which are relatively consistent towards the beginning) come far too infrequently. And throughout the film, overwrought drama, both in dialogue and cliché imagery, can suffocate the screenplay’s lightness.
But “Rules Don’t Apply” has an undeniable charm. There’s a scintillating dynamism and confidence about 1950s Hollywood, and its extravagant offices, studios, houses and cars are beautifully brought to life in the film. Establishing shots seem to have been filmed with an old camera, rendering Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Acapulco like the faraway postcard destinations they had been at the time. The size and quality of the cast is astounding. Legendary actors appear in relatively small roles, like Ed Harris (“Pollock”), Martin Sheen (“Badlands”), Paul Sorvino (“Goodfellas”), Alec Baldwin (“Still Alice”) and Candice Bergen (“Gandhi”), to name a few. A scene with Steve Coogan (“The Trip”) is riotously funny. Ehrenreich and Collins, both up-and-coming stars, are the true highlights. Arguments between the two explode with timeless passion and sexual urgency.
“Rules Don’t Apply” is stuffed with the thematic material — religiosity, capitalism, gender, psychology, wealth — that could make the film truly special, but Beatty doesn’t go all the way. What’s missing is some unifying theory, some answer, to the eternal question of Hughes: what really made him so crazy? Hughes fascinates Beatty, like the rest of us, but “Rules Don’t Apply” doesn’t resolve any confusion. That’s not to say every good film has to have a well-constructed argument, but when a modern master takes nearly 20 years between his films, it’s reasonable to expect better.