Warren Beatty comes out of a 15-year career hiatus for Rules Don’t Apply, a passion project about eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes that he wrote, directed, co-stars in. You might be tempted to see it because:
*Hey, it’s Warren Beatty again!
*Howard Hughes is an incredibly interesting person.
*It also stars Alden Ehrenreich, aka Hobie “Would that it were so simple” Doyle from Hail, Caesar!, aka the new Han Solo, and you gotta keep tabs on this guy to make sure he’s worthy of the vest and the Corellian Bloodstripe.
*The cast, aside from Beatty and Ehrenreich, is filled with people you know and probably like to various degrees. Beatty has connections, y’all. At various points, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Oliver Platt, Ed Harris, Taissa Farmiga, Matthew Broderick, Steve Coogan, Alec Baldwin, and Candice Bergen all show up, some if only for a scene or two.
Do not let yourself be fooled. This movie is bad.
The problem with Rules Don’t Apply is that it’s a passion project, and it feels like a passion project, in a bad way. Beatty clearly wanted to play Hughes, the mid-20th century airline titan, sometime film producer and banana nut ice cream enthusiast previously played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. And Beatty’s is a decent performance, focusing on Hughes as an ultra-charismatic, if somewhat tortured, eccentric whom his entire circle can’t help but to rotate around like he’s the sun. Put it up aside DiCaprio, and the difference is stark: Rules Don’t Apply’s Hughes is something of a tragic figure, to be sure, but it’s tragic in a glossed-over, old-school Hollywood way. There’s no bordering-on-fetishistic portrayal of mental illness. He doesn’t pee in any bottles.
Part of Hughes’ retinue are aspiring actress Marla (Lily Collins), all virginal sweetness and “oh my stars!,” and her driver, Frank (Ehrenreich), an aspiring businessman who wants Hughes’ ear so he can convince him to invest in a real estate project. Marla and Frank are interested in each other from the start, but their romance is star-crossed: Hughes has strict rules against drivers and actresses dating, and anyway, Frank is engaged to his hometown sweetheart (Farmiga).
Marla and Frank make up the other two points of Rules Don’t Apply’s main character triangle, and my God, Warren Beatty, pick a plot. You get the sense that Hughes was envisioned as a supporting player in Frank and Marla’s epic love, but Beatty-the-writer/director can’t help himself from going back to him time and again, because…. well, passion project. He’s always wanted to play Hughes—what is he only going to do two scenes? The result is rambling, disjointed mess that needed to be edited down in a big way.
There are individual elements that work—Candice Bergen is great to see again, as Hughes’ business manager Nadine. And Bening is a standout as Marla’s puritanical mother, whose views about what Marla is getting herself into, though they would have seemed prudish and old-fashioned back in the sexually-awakening ’60s, look pretty smart now. (To wit: These men just want to have sex with you. Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of.) And Ehrenreich comports himself admirably, as the fish-out-of-water Frank bringing some jolts of humor to an otherwise tedious affair. If you need something to see this weekend, go to Moana instead.