126 min. | PG-13
Howard Hughes may have grown wary of the public eye, but 40 years after the famous recluse’s passing, the public still has him under the microscope. Martin Scorsese’s 2004 biopic The Aviator was a close-to-complete portrait of the entrepreneur, movie mogul, inventor, and oddball. Other films like Melvin and Howard and Orson Welles’ F for Fake have chewed peripherally on his outsize character.
At first, writer-director Warren Beatty’s passion project Rules Don’t Apply seems to fall in the second camp, casting Hughes (Beatty) as a side attraction to the budding love story between two of his employees in the late 1950s. Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is paid to chauffeur around Hollywood Hughes’ many starlets under contract, including Marla (Lily Collins), a devout Baptist trying to break into the industry without taking off her clothes.
Frank and Marla both have big dreams—a source of their bonding—but step one to realizing those dreams is getting Hughes to actually meet with them face to face. Cleverly, Beatty withholds Hughes not just from Frank and Marla, but the audience, too. By the time we meet him, the anticipation has taken on epic proportions.
Oh, but what a steep drop-off follows. Beatty hasn’t acted in a feature film since the 2001 misfire Town & Country, and here, two decades too old to be playing Hughes, he has just enough charisma to keep an erratically scripted character interesting as a supporting player—a prod on the plot and not its chief purpose. But he keeps drawing the story away from the lead characters’ winsome romance and toward Hughes’ mania and grasping to hold on to his company. He’s a subplot that swallows the film.
Was that the intention? There’s enough extra-textual evidence to wonder if the movie mutated in postproduction: The credits list four editors, as well as the prominent billing of two actors (Dabney Coleman, Chace Crawford) I don’t recall making the final cut of the movie. That’s just speculation, of course. What’s plain onscreen, and often metered out in short, choppy scenes, is an inconsistency in tone, swerving from peppy to morose, and an ambivalence toward whether we’re meant to read Hughes as a comic or tragic figure. Either way, Beatty has taken an object of enduring fascination and made him… not so much.