By Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
At this point, Warren Beatty has been off the big screen for 15 years — or five years longer than Howard Hughes, the man he plays in his new serio-comedy Rules Don’t Apply, was a recluse so mysteriously out of the public eye. At once an amusingly eccentric take on a billionaire fixated with controlling others people’s lives and a romance about a young couple constipated by the conservative religious and social sexual mores of the 1950s, this is a fitfully funny quasi-farce that takes off promisingly, loses its way mid-flight, and comes in for a bumpy but safe landing.
Light in feel and yet keenly personal, this long-aborning entertainment has enough engaging elements to interest Beatty fans, but the two twentysomething lead characters are insufficiently developed to grab the imaginations of younger viewers. Set to open on Nov. 23, this Fox release was world premiered as the opening night attraction of this year’s AFI Film Festival.
Beatty’s last film appearance came in the 2001 flop Town and Country, in which he was the romantic leading man; three years before that, he directed and starred in the audacious political satire Bulworth. Now, in his late 70s, Beatty is playing Hughes when the tycoon was in his mid-50s, and quite engagingly so. The primary action notably begins in 1959, precisely when Beatty started making a name for himself in Hollywood. The evocation of time and place is piquant and rife with a sense of forbidden sexuality strongly reminiscent of that summoned up in the film that made him a star, Splendor in the Grass.
In a flurry of early scenes so short that they are little more than blackouts, lovely young Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) is brought to L.A. by her mother Lucy (Annette Bening) under contract to Hughes at $400 per week. Installed in a lovely Hollywood Hills home, Marla expects to be screen tested soon but instead finds herself in a holding pattern along with 25 other young and beautiful female hopefuls just like herself.
Marla’s driver is the likewise youthful and good-looking Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, so fine as the hayseed actor in the Coen brothers’ ’50s Hollywood-set Hail, Caesar!). The two innocents, both of whom are at Hughes’ beck and call but mostly have nothing to do, quickly bond, in the spirit of the times, over the matter of their mutual sexual inexperience: Marla freely refers to herself as “the virgin Baptist,” while Frank, who’s engaged, is similarly without carnal knowledge in a world in which Billy Graham emphasizes abstinence on TV and Hughes insists upon no hanky panky between his (largely Mormon) male staff and the would-be starlets (whom the lanky Texan obviously wants all to himself).
Hughes, a notorious, if eccentric, lothario, has long been known for his fondness for actresses and his stable of them. But it takes a long time for Marla to realize that she may never even get a screen test at all. Despite the film’s quick sense of tempo and propensity for seeking out humor in the behavior of basically humorless characters, the sense of wasted time for all those in Hughes’ orbit is acute and, as Beatty begins to push Hughes further to the center of things, the writer-director’s fascination for the eccentricities of the tycoon assert themselves.
Scenes are loaded with, and sometimes completely taken over by, arcane details about the man whom Beatty has been researching since the 1970s, when he first announced his ambition to make a film about Hughes. Some scenes are uniquely devoted to detailing his singular idiosyncrasies, including eating TV dinners off of folding trays, obsessing over the best brassiere design for his actresses, not responding in any humanly known way to questions put to him, and obsessing over ice cream.
Unfortunately, with the increased focus on Hughes comes a fraying of attention on Frank and Marla, who are set up from the outset as the primary objects of the audience’s emotional involvement, even if Hughes soon emerges as a figure of greater interest. The title tees up the prospect that the two young leads will eventually emerge from their primly maintained shells to bust through their own and their boss’ rules. But when something else happens about half-way through, their characters disappointingly fail to expand or deepen. Instead, Beatty’s primary interest settles on the drug-addicted and reclusive weirdo Hughes became after his near-fatal airplane accident: his erratic dealings with TWA executives as well as his own staff; his hopping from one country to another and eventual move to Las Vegas; and his eventual retreat to a bed behind a curtain. Instead of a promising comedy-drama about a sex-mad puppetmaster and the repressed beautiful young things he hires to enact his desired scenarios, the film largely abandons them to become a sometimes wacky study you could call “The Origins of a Recluse.”
That said, it’s fun to savor the deep detail with which the writer-director has enriched his film, from the very specific nature of Hughes’ fetishes to the astonishingly casual way with which he regards enormous financial decisions. The Hollywood in which the film is set (and in which Beatty first set foot) is beautifully evoked, from the house above the Hollywood Bowl from which you can listen to concerts to dinners at Musso and Frank’s and trips down a Hollywood Boulevard where Ben-Hur is playing at the Egyptian Theater.
The deep supporting cast features any number of wonderful actors in mostly very limited roles; among the more prominent are Matthew Broderick as a top flunky, Alec Baldwin as Bob Maheu, and Martin Sheen as Noah Dietrich.
To be sure, the film is beautifully decked out to evoke a very specific time and place according to Beatty’s memory of them. Contributing impressively are cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, production designer Jeannine Oppewall, and costume designer Albert Wolsky. There were four editors and 16 producers.
Musically, the hodgepodge score is dominated by the moving, lyrical strains of the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony (previously used extensively onscreen in Visconti’s Death in Venice). But Beatty uses it far too much, seemingly dropping the needle on the track whenever he wants to stir a little emotional melancholy on behalf of the two young leads.
Warren Beatty Explains Why He Came Back to Make ‘Rules Don’t Apply’: