When it comes to directing, Warren Beatty is no frequent flyer. By contrast, the muse of the Hollywood legend’s first feature since 1998’s Bulworth, Rules Don’t Apply, is none other than the aero-obsessive, billionaire-businessman, investor and occasional filmmaker, Howard Hughes.
Though the film’s production didn’t kick-start until early 2014, it was Beatty’s 1973 encounter with Hughes, at a hotel in which the tycoon had booked six rooms and four bungalows for ‘the girls’, that initially inspired its forty-four year process from concept to release. Though Rules Don’t Apply is no swan-song masterpiece, within it are swathing tides of perfection which ooze pure pleasure as they flow in and leave debris in their moments of recession. A quite remarkable obsession as produced a generally remarkable film.
Beatty frames the story in 1964, where the American press await a call from Hughes, hidden far away in the isolation of his bed and behind a curtain canopy, to defend allegations against him of lunacy. The clock is then wound back five years and four months to an epoch in which Hughes – still hidden from the mise-en-scène – is causing eccentric havoc via a rogue plane ride. On terra firma, meanwhile, his employee Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) has been assigned to collect, and thereafter chauffeur, wannabe starlet Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and her stringently Baptist mother, Lucy (Annette Bening, typically terrific). Mabrey has been contracted by Hughes through RKO, one of many number of identikit would-be Marilyn Monroe’s (see the initials), with the potential for a big screen role. Ever the eccentric, Hughes keeps his distance from Marla until about twenty-five minutes into the runtime – by which point she’s kicked up a fuss, her mother has gone home, and a deific aura has been born in his absence, much like that of Tom Hanks’ Disney in Saving Mr Banks. A celestial air amplified by the religious discourse that occupies much of the early stages of the film: ‘The Bible says we are all sinners and what it means to be sinners is that we should fall below the Lord’s standards’. God has standards and so does Mr. Hughes. Principle of these is that his ‘girls’ may not be romantically attached to his staff, which naturally spells trouble for the bubbling chemistry between Marla and Frank.
As might be expected from a film directed by a name whose reputation precedes him, Beatty’s supporting cast is speckled with doyens of acting talent, from Alec Baldwin to Matthew Broderick, and all the way to Martin Sheen. Each brings their own brand of excellence, of course, but it’s Ehrenreich and Collins who steal both your love and attention. The pair have an instantly charming frisson, brought out through a delightful soundtrack of Rosemary Clooney’s ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ and Bobby Day’s ‘Rockin’ Robbin’ – a toe-tapping joy. Truly, they bounce off each other beautifully and it is all too easy to will for them a happy ending. Which is perhaps why the predominance of Beatty’s Hughes in the second half can’t help but throw the flow slightly. Increasingly, as Hughes enacts a divide and rule subsidence of the couple, his eccentricities take centre stage. He potters around haphazardly, failing to meet both business requirements and social conventions, whilst a mid-point – and decidedly creepy – plot twist is played for comedy in a way that never wholly satisfies. Sure, Beatty’s on good acting form, but a touch indulgent all the same. This, hardly surprising in light of the four decade infatuation with Hughes’ character from which the film spawns.
That said, Rules Don’t Apply is consistently pleasurable to watch, funny, and captured with a winningly vivid colour scheme. Beatty’s adoration for the old and timeless – note nods to rear-view projection and slapstick – is tempered perfectly by a choppy style of editing which maintains a neat pace and terrifically modern vibrance. Some have deemed the film a lightweight affair but that feels harsh for a film so loaded with metaphor, even if it never quite delves deep enough into the duality of its title. On the one hand, Frank tells Marla – in a scene that is not the only comparable element to Damien Chazelle’s La La Land – that the rules don’t apply to her. She can, he states, achieve anything. Flip this to Hughes and you’re left with a man so omnipotent that it seems as though rules don’t apply to his chauvinistic lifestyle; a more troubling proposition indeed.