It would appear that Warren Beatty was having such a good time making “Rules Don’t Apply” that the feeling is infectious. It is great fun to watch him give an outsized portrait of the outsized, legendary Howard Hughes. Beatty also wrote and directed the film (it is from a story he wrote with Bo Goldman), and his performance as Hughes is a welcome return to the screen. It is treat to watch him revel in the part.
We don’t really see him for a while. Hughes is shown in shadowy fashion until we finally get him in full view. The film concentrates on the point in his life when Hughes was a recluse, partly just an odd-ball but also in urgent need of psychiatric help. The pilot, aviation tycoon, movie producer and public figure had a busy life. But the film looks at him in the latter stages, and Beatty shows the sides of him that confounded everyone working for him.
There are the outrageous demands, his sudden whims, his desire to keep from seeing people—all adding up to a comic element in the bizarre story, and Beatty does all of this exceedingly well. A nutty charm is conveyed as the world closes in on him. Finally, the film turns a corner in which we see a sad side to Hughes’s life, yet he still manages to hold his enemies at bay. Much has been written over the years about him, including the famous hoax by Clifford Irving. “Rules Don’t Apply” is not a film in search of truth. It is primarily an entertainment and platform for its star.
The side romantic story involving Lily Collins as Marla, who is being screen tested as a starlet, and Alden Ehrenreich as Frank, an employee of Hughes, is fluffy stuff, less interesting than the portrait of the tycoon. Collins is pretty and Ehrenreich is good looking, and both act nicely, but the relationship, given heavy emphasis in the plot, is a distraction.
One of the most amusing scenes is when Marla drinks a bottle of champagne, forgets her Baptist upbringing and comes on to the reclusive Hughes, who lets his guard down and has sex with her. It is more funny than erotic, and of course, we can count on consequences.
As fictional biography, “Rules Don’t Apply” barely touches the surface of Hughes’s life, but it does capture the impression of him as a man in fear that his enemies will have him declared insane so that his wealth could be taken over.
The film has numerous supporting performances, including Annette Bening as Marla’s mother, Candice Bergen, as the boss’s secretary and Matthew Broderick as a key employee, plus various other recognizable actors in assorted roles. Overall the film succeeds primarily as a vehicle for Beatty and the result is enjoyable entertainment despite the aforementioned negative side. A 20th Century Fox release. Reviewed November 27, 2016.