The impulse to make a film about eccentric billionaire, aviation and brassiere enthusiast Howard Hughes is not difficult to understand; there is ample material in his life story for juicy screen adaptations. Nevertheless, we recently got stuck with Warren Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply,” a confusing semi-comedy that gives Beatty plenty of fun stuff to do as Hughes and leaves the cute young stars, Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins, in characterization limbo.
I suppose it’s a comedy in that it isn’t serious, but it also isn’t terribly funny. Ehrenreich, so unforgettable in the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar” that he snagged the coveted role of young Han Solo in the upcoming “Star Wars” prequel, plays Frank Forbes, a determined young man trying to work his way up in the secretive world of Howard Hughes while maintaining his strict Christian upbringing.
Another recent transplant who is also a strict Christian, Marla Mabry (Collins), is thrilled to find herself in the stable of Hughes’ would-be starlets. Her setup is intriguing. Hughes maintains a bevy of beauties under contract and keeps them on a very short leash. They are given paychecks, lovely homes, personal chauffeurs, and singing and dancing lessons, but are also carefully controlled — and must fetch their paychecks from the end of a fishing line held out of a window.
Marla’s mother, played by Annette Benning, is horrified by the overt sexism of the operation and thinks her daughter should go to college, but Marla decides to stick things out.
Waiting is part of what makes this film so unsatisfying. It rambles around, waiting to reveal Hughes, while we are meant to start feeling things for the star-crossed young lovers. Their would-be relationship didn’t add up for me, and although Frank comes to love Marla, any emotions he shows, such as jealousy, seem random because there is no foundation of believability.
Between the Oscars dustup and this film, I reckon Warren Beatty’s year of comebacks went pretty badly. It’s not too difficult to see his Howard Hughes character as a surrogate for himself; Beatty is a Hollywood legend and a maverick.
The most interesting reading of the film is to witness the hypocrisy, the enabling sycophants, the secrecy and general nonsense surrounding the legendary Hughes, and to imagine what Beatty has experienced during his years in Hollywood. If he hadn’t bothered to throw in the love story, the film might have been stronger. Also shorter, which would have been much appreciated.
Beatty’s performance is memorable — even if his old-age makeup is terrible and he looks exactly like Grandpa from “The Munsters” — and he brings a knowing twinkle to the trope of the mad genius. No one could rein in Hughes, and no one reigns in “Rules Don’t Apply.” It’s an intriguing but saggy excursion through Old Hollywood via the eyes of an underdeveloped character.
“Rules Don’t Apply” is currently available to rent.