Rules Don't Apply review: Warren Beatty charms as Howard Hughes, but this movie belongs to the beautiful young things
Dir: Warren Beatty; Starring: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening, Candice Bergen, Oliver Platt, Alec Baldwin. 12A cert, 127 mins
The time flies faster than you can keep track of it. Meals and drives, days and nights, all flit past in a cut or two, and though everyone talks about what they want to do, then gets sidetracked by more talk about what they have to do, no-one actually seems to get anything done.
Welcome to Hollywood, 1958 – or at least the version of it found in Rules Don't Apply, the new film from Warren Beatty. It’s a town on its knees at the altar of youth, but no-one in the congregation’s getting any younger.
Beatty has been mulling over his fifth film as director, and first in 18 years, since the mid-1960s, and the result is a picture that’s impossible to disentangle from both its maker and its making. Its premise suggests a screwball late-life biopic of Howard Hughes, with Beatty himself in the role of the elusive, womanising cinema and aviation magnate.
But it opens with a teasing quotation attributed to Hughes – “Never check an interesting fact” – that hints at epistemologically slippy ground ahead. (Slippier and slippier: it’s not clear Hughes ever actually said it.)
As befits a recluse, we don’t see much of Hughes at first. He’s a voice though a doorway, an outline in the gloom – and, in the film’s 1964-set prologue, a Wizard of Oz-like figure concealed behind a velvet curtain that won’t swish back. Instead, the focus is on Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), two youngsters drawn to Hollywood by Hughes's planet-like gravitational pull.
Marla is a small-town beauty queen with a promised screen test for a forthcoming Hughes production, Frank an aspiring property developer who takes a job as one of his chauffeurs. Both are under orders, both religious and professional, to keep their relationship platonic at all costs – though Hollywood, as the film’s title suggests, has something else in mind for them.
It’s Frank who collects Marla and her mother (a superb Annette Bening) from the airport and delivers them to an idyllic Hughes property in the hills, where the strains of Mahler’s Adagietto come drifting up from a concert hall in the valley below. The moment is so picture-perfect, it comes with its own soundtrack.
Beatty’s casting of Collins and Ehrenreich is inspired: it’s easy to imagine both of these beautiful young things thriving in the Hollywood of the 1950s and 60s, in much the same way Beatty himself did. Collins, in her best role by far since Mirror Mirror, has the open gaze, wholesome sensuality and clarity of expression of a young Natalie Wood – not to mention the eyebrows – while Ehrenreich, who was the stealth MVP in the Coen brothers’ own studio-era satire Hail Caesar!, seems to have assimilated some of the younger Beatty’s mannerisms.
In a quietly lovely scene in which Frank and Hughes stroll side by side down a starlit pier, sounding each other out through comic small talk, it’s as if echoes of the older actor’s smiles and shrugs are bouncing back at him from across a 50-year crevasse.
The supporting cast, presumably culled from Beatty’s bulging contacts book, are just as well selected. Oliver Platt gets to reignite a little of the pop-eyed panic be brought to Bulworth, while Matthew Broderick is ideal as Hughes’ glassily content head driver Levar, who serves as a constant tragicomic example for Frank of what can happen to a life that’s allowed to idle in neutral for too long.
Though much of Rules Don’t Apply unfolds at the frantic tempo of a farce, and with a shapelessness that’s occasionally confusing, it’s in moments like this – slightly heightened, unreal pauses in the panic – that the film really hits its beguiling stride. An eventually tactile encounter between Marla and Hughes in a secluded bungalow could have been icky in the extreme, given the gap between both characters in both age and power, but Beatty stages it with a film projector purring in the background, casting Marla in a softly flickering light that makes her look made from the stuff of cinema itself.
Tipsy on champagne, she sits at the piano and sings a bittersweet little life’s-too-short lament – “Is it written in the air, as it seems to be, that we haven’t long at all to find our destiny?” – and as Hughes watches her, helpless and enraptured, there’s a sense that time has momentarily stopped, the moment captured in his memory like a movie scene he’ll never forget.
Beatty’s charming, wry performance has an unmistakably autobiographical glint: though in Hughes’ day he filled the young upstart role, today he’s the Hollywood elder statesman, with a seasoned producer’s awareness of the business’s most ludicrous internal churnings, but a film-lover's delight in the magic it can make when the conditions are right.
Rules Don’t Apply looks at both with a fond, nostalgic smile, and finds no inconsistency between the two.