Warren Beatty has led one of the most charmed lives in Hollywood, and does not need my pity. Yet pity him I did when I saw that his long-gestating passion project, a biographical fantasy about Howard Hughes, opened to an abysmal $667 per-screen average, making it the biggest flop of 2016. (Why it even opened on over 2,000 screens, instead of rolling out slowly like most end-of-year Oscar hopefuls, is a mystery; perhaps Beatty had an ancient distribution deal with Fox that mandated a wide release for whatever he might make for them.)
Still, if Rules Don't Apply is a bomb, it's not a bad bomb.
The film is mostly set in 1959, with Beatty taking extensive creative liberties by compressing several key events in Hughes's life – his 1946 plane crash in Beverly Hills, his Senate hearing in 1947, his control of RKO Studios in 1954 – into this one year, perhaps hoping his 76-year-old self might be more convincing as the 53-year-old Hughes than as the 41-year-old Hughes. (With boyish 28-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio trying to pass himself off as a fortysomething Hughes in The Aviator, one longs for an age-appropriate actor in the role.) To show what life must have been like for Hughes's frazzled business handlers and RKO ingenues, Beatty invents two fictional characters, chauffeur Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) and starlet Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), to anchor the story. Naturally, a love affair grows between his two young employees – one that is forbidden by contract.
Some have claimed that the Hughes storyline plays second fiddle to the romantic comedy elements of Frank and Marla. Not true. Hughes dominates Rules Don't Apply, even in the scenes that don't feature Beatty. In other words, you aren't in for a cloying rom-com with historical figures in gratuitous supporting roles, à la IQ, with Walter Matthau as Albert Einstein, or Ever After, with Leonardo da Vinci as an unlikely matchmaker. This is a Howard Hughes biopic front and center, and though it bends a lot of facts, I found Beatty to be quite fair in his depiction of Hughes's mental illness, and the chaos his various attendants and paramours endured. The film, in fact, is often quite dark, its occasional moments of levity either adding sweetness or dissonance, depending on your point of view.
With Frank and Marla serving primarily as "witness characters", their arcs are pretty bland. Beatty doesn't make time for their romance to blossom realistically, so it's up to the on-screen chemistry between Ehrenreich and Collins to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, the actors have none. But Beatty, who himself has had a reputation as a cagey if charismatic recluse, gives it his all as Hughes, and he's certainly staged a handsome production. The film feels muddled at times – several big names in the cast do very little, suggesting that they once had meatier scenes that were later cut – but it will likely be better appreciated later on. I, at least, found it a more authentic look into Howard Hughes's soul than The Aviator ever was.