Warren Beatty was once one of Hollywood’s most popular stars — and arguably still is, though he hasn’t made a movie in more than 15 years. At the height of his fame, however, Beatty leveraged his position as an industry darling to take on truly daring projects, most notably “Reds,” a defiantly noncommercial epic about American journalist John Reed and his fellow Communists — for which he won a best director Oscar.
Now, in what is either the best of timing or the worst of timing, Beatty finally unveils one of his longest-gestating passion projects, the seed of which dates back at least four decades, in which he finally gets to play Howard Hughes (as if what the country needs now is the story of an eccentric, possibly demented billionaire with delusions of grandeur, premiering at the AFI Festival just two days after Donald Trump’s election). Or maybe “Rules Don’t Apply” is exactly what America needs: a nostalgia trip that takes an intimidating, mysterious power figure and turns him into an insecure old teddy bear.
And yet, for once in Beatty’s career, the film isn’t “about him” (take that, Carly Simon), curbing his vanity in what amounts to a frequently unflattering portrait of the reclusive Hughes at a moment that’s set just around the time Beatty himself arrived in Hollywood. Like the Wizard of Oz, Hughes hides behind a curtain for much of the film, not showing his face until nearly 25 minutes into the picture, though the character can’t help but commandeer our attention from that point on, especially amid the vanilla pudding that serves as the rest of the plot.
As imagined by Beatty, Hughes isn’t so much a character as an all-powerful force — a supporting player whose giant invisible hand can be felt throughout Tinseltown. The film takes place mostly in Hollywood, from 1958 onward, kicking off with the arrival of ingénue Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a chaste Baptist girl who has been brought out on contract with Hughes’ RKO Pictures, accompanied by her duly suspicious mother (Annette Bening). (Hughes had actually sold off RKO by 1955, a discrepancy the movie shrugs off with its opening quotation, “Never check an interesting fact,” attributed to Hughes himself.)
Marla and her mother are afforded a swanky Hollywood Hills house and a steady supply of caviar, though it’s not at all clear how the actress was selected for such treatment. Marla herself maintains that she can’t sing, though soon enough she’s bringing men to their knees with (an oft-reprised) vintage-sounding original number, “The Rules Don’t Apply.”
Also among Marla’s perks: a personal chauffeur. And included in Hughes’ small platoon of drivers is the freshly scrubbed Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), who develops an instant interest in Marla — despite being engaged to his wet-noodle 7th-grade sweetheart (Taissa Farmiga).
While both Frank and Marla work for Hughes, neither has met him, lending a certain mystique to what he might be like. In the absence of a face-to-face session with their employer, all they have to go on are his many rules, paramount among them being that no hanky-panky is allowed between contract actors and their drivers. And so, as Frank and Marla eye each other lustfully — the heat obvious to Frank’s manager (Matthew Broderick) and to Marla’s mom — we can’t help but sense the enormous off-screen obstacle that lies between them. While this strategy builds anticipation for the moment the shadowy Hughes finally reveals himself, the would-be couple comes across as small, bland, and ordinary by comparison with their boss.
Once Hughes does appear, he proves far more interesting than the paint-by-numbers boy-meets-girl plot — already stale when Woody Allen tried it earlier this year with “Café Society,” and far more charming (and, weirdly, true to the time period) in “La La Land.” We’re quick to forget the couple’s woes, especially after an icky scene in which Frank gets a little too excited listening to Marla sing “The Rules Don’t Apply.”
Frank’s response is too risqué for films of the era. Overall, though, Beatty tries hard to re-create the look and feel of late-’50s Hollywood as it existed both on-screen and off, aided by DP Caleb Deschanel and terrific costume and set contributions. And yet, it actually comes off too conservative for its own time, with stiff performances from Collins and Ehrenreich, who looks the part of a post-James Dean brooder but lacks the naturalism of the Method style that Dean and his mid-’50s peers ushered in. As a result, “Rules” feels considerably tamer than Beatty’s own acting debut, “Splendor in the Grass,” which occurred just as Hollywood was undergoing both a creative and sexual revolution not yet in evidence here.
Meanwhile, Beatty’s Hughes is a wily and impossible-to-pin-down loon, a slave to his own obsessive-compulsive disorder, giggling impishly to himself and talking in an excited, reedy voice that sounds an awful lot like Beatty’s friend Jack Nicholson. But what exactly are the impulses behind Hughes’ strange behavior? Whether out of paranoia or perversion, he secretly records his first meeting with Marla, and though he seems jealous of the possibility that his staff might be seducing his brood of young starlets, there’s nothing (on-screen, at least) to indicate that he has designs on them himself.
At one point, he confides in Frank, “If you don’t drive ’em, you can’t keep your eye on ’em.” But if surveillance is so important, why do the girls go for weeks and months without the slightest sign of attention from Hughes? Is his so-called studio just an elaborate front for a personal harem? He’s rumored to have 26 young actresses under contract at the time, and not all are as innocent as Marla, whom Hughes dismisses as a “Baptist nun.”
But once the naive young teetotaler gets drunk in his presence, her carnal side appears; it’s Marla who makes the first advance. In light of his playboy past, one can’t help but ask whether Beatty now prefers not to be regarded as the seductive stud he once was.
A collage of doctored photos from Hughes’ Hollywood heyday, featuring Beatty at his most beautiful photoshopped next to the bombshells of the era, suggests a more interesting chapter from Hughes’ life — one that was still swinging 15 years later, in 1973, when Beatty discovered that the billionaire was allegedly keeping a stable of women at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where the actor was living at the time.
Though “Rules Don’t Apply” shows a Hughes who’s clearly unhinged, Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” takes a more substantive plunge into the billionaire’s neuroses. In “Rules Don’t Apply,” Hughes is merely the device that keeps the young couple apart, which he succeeds in doing for a clumsily edited five-year stretch in which Marla disappears and Frank is stuck doing menial tasks, like buying up the last remaining supply of Baskin-Robbins’ banana-nut ice cream while an unrecognizable Candice Bergen screens calls.
As Hughes’ behavior gets weirder, his business partners begin to question his fitness to manage his interests (with cameos by Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin), and try to wrest control of TWA away from him. The script assumes that audiences know a fair amount about Hughes’ personal history going in (his obsession with the Spruce Goose, for instance, and the fact that he barely managed to get it off the ground), which tells you a bit about the demographic Beatty is targeting.
Beatty, 79, is more than a quarter century older than Hughes was in 1958, and though it’s a pleasure to see him acting again, this version of the character feels more pathetic than magnetic. It’s as if Beatty already found an outlet to embody the charming, hot-blooded millionaire when he brought those qualities to his portrayal of Benjamin Siegel in “Bugsy.” And now that Beatty has settled down (with his “Bugsy” co-star, Bening, as it happens), he may no longer be interested in playing the seductive side of Hughes that reportedly attracted him to the character in the first place. Can it be that the great Warren Beatty has finally been tamed?