For his first directorial effort since 1998's political comedy Bulworth, Warren Beatty couldn't have chosen a more personal yet problematic figure to follow than Howard Hughes. For Beatty grew up admiring the golden Hollywood era the eccentric Hughes was such a part of. And there are similarities in the playboy personas they cultivated. It's clear he has a fondness not only for the time but the famed philanthropist and aviator's many strange quirks. But that appreciation also has him reducing Hughes to little more than a jumble of idiosyncrasies, which when combined with the rust from Beatty's long layoff has Rules Don't Apply landing with a thud like Hughes' famed "Spruce Goose".
The forever-developing passion project was long billed as a Hughes biopic with Beatty back in front of the camera for the first time since 2001's Town & Country. Beatty, with a little caterpillar of a mustache, does indeed play the reclusive entrepreneur but he's largely secondary to a chaste screwball romance between two fictional characters of little consequence. The charming Lily Collins and future Han Solo himself Alden Ehrenreich play Marla Mabrey and Frank, whose conservative values put them at odds with Hughes and the Hollywood culture they are a part of. She's basically a stand-in for the many women Hughes kept under contract as part of his unofficial harem, promising them roles in projects that didn't exist or would always crumble. Frank is one of Hughes' army of drivers, who escort the ladies around town when they aren't busy transporting the boss himself. We're reminded ad nauseum that she is a "good Baptist girl" who doesn't do nasty things like smoke, drink, or have sex (guaranteeing that she will do ALL of these things at some point). Frank just hopes to finally meet Hughes, who stays in hiding from practically everyone, so he can pitch him on a land deal.But their romance comes under threat from potential retribution from Hughes who forbids his employees from fraternizing with his girls. Think those rules apply to him? What's the name of this movie again?
So not the typical Hughes drama, right? And that's clearly what Beatty was going for, hence the title, as he tries to buck the usual biopic structure. In a way, Rules Don't Apply mirrors the free-wheeling fiction of Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead, only less competently put together. Sloppy editing leads to some abrupt and jarring scene changes that only muddle the passage of time, not to mention raise questions over what Beatty wants us to focus on. See if you can count the number of times he cuts away to a random character who has nothing to do with the present scene. And at least Cheadle had the good sense to make his movie about Miles Davis, not some random flunky in his employ. By the time we finally meet Hughes he's already fallen off the deep end. He's hiding in the darkness refusing to be seen, he's serving his girls TV dinners and ordering hundreds of gallons of banana nut ice cream. He's fickle, moody, unkempt, and on the verge of losing his business if proven insane. It's a potentially interesting plot that would have made for a far better movie than the extended meet-cute we're treated to.
There are a few shining moments, beginning with the polished cinematography by Caleb Deschanel that presents Hollywood like one gigantic fantasy backlot, similar to the Coen Brothers' ritzier Hail Caesar. And there's one laugh-out-loud hilarious moment when an aging Hughes wobbles through piloting one of his planes while the passengers (including Steve Coogan in a brief, almost wordless cameo) look to one another in horror. Otherwise, the parade of celebrity guest stars don't get much to do. Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening, Taissa Farmiga, Haley Bennett, Candice Bergen, Oliver Platt, Alec Baldin, Dabney Coleman and many more get to say they worked with a legend like Beatty. Too bad Rules Don't Apply fails to represent the best of Beatty's career, but more like Hughes' sad final years when time had passed him by.
1.5 out of 5