Warren Beatty has talked about playing Howard Hughes for decades, and Rules Don’t Apply makes it easy to see why.
Beatty’s longtime passion project about the reclusive billionaire is a breezy and amusing throwback tale of celebrity, gossip, romance, and affluence in 1950s Hollywood. Plus, it allows 79-year-old Beatty, in his return to the big screen after a hiatus of more than 15 years, to have fun with an eccentric role for which his true-life reputation seems almost a kindred spirit.
The film’s primary focus is on Marla (Lily Collins), a young ingénue who travels across the country with her deeply religious mother (Annette Bening) to meet with the fickle Hughes about an acting contract. While she waits for her turn to impress the mogul — who’s in the middle of a battle over his airline fortune because of alleged mental health issues — Marla strikes up a friendship with an equally wholesome limo driver (Alden Ehrenreich) who likewise has never met his employer. Their relationship deepens, but Hughes has a strict rule forbidding employees from romancing contract actresses — except, it seems, for himself.
Although other films (most notably The Aviator) have tackled different aspects of Hughes’ larger-than-life story, Beatty’s screenplay focuses on the period when his health begins to decline amid his numerous idiosyncrasies. The film isn’t really a biopic, as it uses the Hughes mythology and his real-life business dealings as a launching point to bring in fictional characters and scenarios. It admits with tongue in cheek its embellishments and fabrications.
Beatty’s affinity for his subject is evident in a performance that paints Hughes as a notorious, shadowy figure whose quirks are an act of showmanship more than mental illness or instability. And in grand old Hollywood style, several noteworthy performers pop in for cameos.
Rules Don’t Apply is a visual treat. The evocative cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (The Natural) overflows with nostalgia in its depiction of the opulent excesses of its time and place.
Beatty keeps the pace relaxed almost to a fault, and some might find the lack of deeper insight or narrative complexity disappointing for a project with so much buildup. Those anticipating a dark character study will find it too lighthearted and playful, but it provides a welcome return for its star on both sides of the camera. And Beatty, like Hughes, always commands the spotlight.