By Richard von Busack
Warren Beatty’s comeback movie is a sometimes bizarre, sometimes winning film about multi-hyphenate billionaire Howard Hughes (Beatty) in 1959 and 1964, in his last days of lucidity before his eccentricities were turning to mania, and before his mania became out-and-out senility.
With maybe the exception of The Loved One (1965), Rules Don’t Apply is the first film I can think of to compare and contrast two different elements of Hollywood. It’s about the Los Angeles Basin’s status as a refuge for old-time religion—later to turn into the spectacle of the mega-church—which juxtaposed with the whorish amorality and fleshy temptations of the movie business. Frank (Alden Ehrenreich, the kindly cowpoke in Hail Caesar!) is a good church-going Methodist driver in Hughes’ employ. His new passenger is a beauty queen from Virginia named Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins, the film’s standout). While Marla is a self-respecting Baptist, she harbors a hidden desire to go a little wild.
The aged reclusive Hughes (whom neither has got a chance to meet) acts as a kind of bad fairy to complicate things between the religious couple. Beatty’s Hughes is a shadow-dweller, fearless only in the cockpit of a plane; the movie’s funniest part is Hughes reciting an Al Jolson routine from memory while spinning a decrepit aircraft in the skies around London, as both Frank and a uniformed British airman (Steve Coogan) try to swallow their mutual terror.
The last third of Rules Don’t Apply is all over the map, as Frank and Hughes go on business trips that might as well be vacations. Jumping from location to location, the movie gets bewildering.
Collins’ delightful impertinence, which could be compared to Audrey Hepburn’s, keeps you on her side. And it’s an odd sunset performance for Beatty, who shows us Hughes’ last stage, a bedridden wraith with the kind of face you’d only see in a James Ensor painting.
When a person makes a movie about the early 1960s, it’s an advantage if he was really there. Beatty was: The scenery and the dialogue are almost totally anachronism-free. Rules Don’t Apply shows how the luxury and the tackiness co-existed in Hollywood, with one of the most expensive hotel rooms in L.A. making a place for aluminum TV trays and Swanson’s frozen dinners.