Remove Warren Beatty from the equation and expectations of “Rules Don’t Apply” — which he wrote, directed and stars in — would fit the outcome. A sweet, old-fashioned Hollywood romance that just so happens to involve Howard Hughes as a supporting character, Beatty’s long-gestating project is a modestly enjoyable, well-acted nostalgia piece with just a touch of edge. As passion projects go, this one’s disarmingly slight in its ambitions, the opposite of Hughes’ legacy in every way.
At the same time, Beatty’s lively screenplay does a fine job of sketching out a distinct moment in Hughes’ legacy while situating more intimate drama within it. “Rules Don’t Apply” opens in 1964, on the brink of Hughes’ famous phone call to reporters on national television after years of avoiding them. From there, it flashes back six years to a very different occasion: Bright-eyed young actress Marla Collins (Lily Collins) heads to Hollywood on the invite of Hughes’ production company to audition for one of his upcoming movies. With a snazzy blend of show tunes and archival footage as mother and daughter head into town, Beatty expertly recreates an absorbing atmosphere filled with idealism; it’s only a matter of time before that halcyon vision falls apart.
Plugged into one of the many homes that Hughes maintains around town, she shows up with her doting mother (Annette Bening) only to discover that Marla’s among a handful of young women summoned for the unspecified role. But Marla finds one silver lining in the companionship of her assigned driver, Frank Forbes (Aldo Ehrenreich), a pious Methodist nearly as excited as her about the possibility of working for Hughes — even though he, like Marla, has never met that man. The good-natured Frank harbors big career ambitions, despite Hughes’ jaded senior driver (Matthew Broderick) continually rolling his eyes; Marla’s similarly ebullient about her prospects despite her mother’s skepticism.
Their blind optimism provides a sharp conduit for evaluating Hughes’ ability to generate a grandiose brand while remaining out of the public eye. Rising star Ehrenreich — seen earlier this year in another dose of Hollywood nostalgia, “Hail, Caesar!” —excels at conveying the era with an ultra-slick, wholesome look. But the movie really belongs to Collins, a bubbly presence looking to get ahead who winds up fighting for that goal more than she expected.
Their chemistry is so strong that Beatty, who enters into the picture as Hughes near the end of the first act, threatens to topple it. Despite his usual charisma, Beatty plays the wealthy multi-tasker with broad comedic strokes despite the dark overtones of the plot — as an obsessive-compulsive lunatic who hides in the shadows, barks inane orders into various speaker phones and rambles about the minutiae of aviation at every chance, he borders on parody. A far cry from the brooding dramatic territory of “The Aviator,” Beatty’s Hughes is a bumbling nutcase out of sync with the movie’s more elegant core.
20th Century Fox
But that tonal dissonance enhances the reality check that Marla and Frank eventually both must face, and Beatty’s screenplay finds a steady emotional foundation in their emerging disillusionment. The movie evokes a bittersweet, wistful tone embodied by its lovely title song, which Marla sings at the piano on two occasions: once, with utter sincerity, and then again under the influence and desperate to drive her career forward. That leads to a devastating twist that, while not altogether surprising, unfolds with a subtlety that keeps the story’s tender emotions front and center.
The movie’s warm, polished feel owes much to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who captures sun-kissed Los Angeles landscapes as well as shadowy scenes from Hughes’ bunker. While “Rules Don’t Apply” revers its era, however, it doesn’t do much to demystify Hughes’ role in it. He’s an eccentric, wealthy man who adores planes, sleeps with countless women and doesn’t like much sunlight, but you probably already knew that. Paul Schneider briefly surfaces as Clifford Irving — the fraudulent Hughes biographer famously documented in Orson Welles’ “F For Fake” and played by Richard Gere in “Hoax” — but he’s barely a part of the drama depicted here, which has more to do with pulling back the veil on the Hollywood dream factory in familiar terms explored countless times before (even earlier this year, in both “Hail, Caesar!” and “Cafe Society”). In the pantheon of movies about movies, “Rules Don’t Apply” doesn’t try anything new.
And yet, for that same reason, the movie has the comforting quality of a sturdy formula done right. Beatty’s first directing effort since 1998’s “Bulworth,” “Rules Don’t Apply” is a far cry from that earlier film’s deeply politicized outlook. (In the midst of profound division in America, it may be just the escapism the doctor ordered.) At the same time, it delivers a sober assessment of the exuberant ultra-rich and the vapidity of that lifestyle at a time when such an idea could not be more relevant.
Despite his lofty profile, Beatty’s filmmaking credits remain fairly slim, but he has always succeeded at making movies as focused and entertaining as his screen presence. On a spectrum between the epic “Reds” and outwardly silly “Dick Tracy,” “Rules Don’t Apply” sits somewhere in the middle.
Considered in context, that’s not such a bad place to land. A feel-good romance disguised as something more — and equipped with those expectations by its very existence — “Rules Don’t Apply” is more than just a harmless crowdpleaser. That’s an appropriate outcome: There may be no better way to deconstruct Hughes’ lofty mythology than to undercut it with charm.
“Rules Don’t Apply” opens theatrically on November 23. It premiered as the opening night selection of the 2016 AFI Fest.