Bravo to Warren Beatty for making an original and highly pleasing piece of entertainment. I’m tempted to call Rules Don’t Apply old-fashioned because it is so beautifully crafted—without those pore-counting macro-closeups of its stars that so many films rely on—but that might seem condescending. Perhaps the better adjective would be “timeless.” A good story is a good story and that’s what Beatty gives us: a fanciful interpretation of the elusive Howard Hughes, neatly interwoven with a love story between one of his newly-hired flunkies (Alden Ehrenreich) and an unworldly beauty-contest winner (Lily Collins) who has come to Hollywood with a contract to appear in Hughes’ movies.
Beatty cannily introduces us to the young characters first so we can get to know and like them. He reveals Hughes only when he’s good and ready. Even then, it takes time to reveal the many facets of his contradictory nature. He is quixotic, demanding, and paranoid. He can, on rare occasions, show signs of kindness.
Collins’ character isn’t a stereotypical bumpkin. She soon realizes that she is just one of many starlets who receive weekly paychecks from Hughes but never get to meet him or appear in a movie. She chafes at this treatment early on, along with her disapproving mother (Annette Bening).
An aspiring songwriter, she sits at the piano and delivers a beautifully-written tune called “The Rules Don’t Apply to Me” written by Lorraine Feather and Eddie Arkin. It’s a perfect touch for a movie that evokes an earlier time. Other characters come and go, indicative of the whims and growing recklessness of Hughes in the 1950s. He’s under pressure from the U.S. government, the board of directors of his airline, TWA, and the bankers who could bail him out…but he defies threats and logic as he retreats into his own private world. This dramatic fantasia affords a sterling ensemble (including Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Oliver Platt, and Candice Bergen, among others) to shine even though they don’t get much screen time. Only Matthew Broderick, as one of Hughes’ longest-suffering assistants, makes it all the way through.
The film looks sumptuous, thanks to the work of Beatty’s A-list collaborators including cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, costume designer Albert Wolsky, and production designer Jeannine Oppewall. Archival footage, a bit of CGI magic, and good location scouting help create the atmosphere of a bygone era in Hollywood.
Collins does a fine job as a young woman who asserts herself where others might shy away, not unlike the churchgoing newcomer to Hollywood played by Ehrenreich. As in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, he seems tailor-made to play clean-cut men of this era.
Is it coincidental that Warren Beatty, who has carved his own path in movieland, harbors a fascination with Howard Hughes, the ultimate loner in Hollywood history? Of course not. It’s a perfect marriage of subject and chronicler, not unlike Francis Coppola telling the story of the car-maker who bucked the system in Tucker: The Man and his Dream. The difference here is that Beatty not only produced, directed and wrote the picture (with co-story credit going to Bo Goldman) but also stars in it, and gives one of his best performances as the notorious eccentric. His trademarks—that hazy look in his eyes, the way he seems to be reaching for the right words—serve him especially well here.
None of us will ever know what Howard Hughes was like. Even close associates and eyewitnesses disagree in their assessments of the man. Beatty doesn’t pretend to be telling us a true story and makes that clear right at the start. This is his own flight of fancy, inspired by a figure who lives up to that overused expression “larger than life.” And it’s a treat to watch.