Not unreasonably, Howard Hughes is a figure of fascination in cinema. From Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator to Terry O’Quinn in The Rocketeer, to characters who were inspired by him, like Willard Whyte in Diamonds Are Forever or Howard Stark in the Marvel cinematic universe, the billionaire businessman’s on-screen influence feels fitting for his early status as a movie tycoon.
Now, Warren Beatty directs, produces, writes and stars in Rules Don’t Apply, whose convention-busting title reflects the way in which it runs counter to other cinematic treatments by putting the spotlight on two of Hughes’ many employees. Set during the tumultuous years of 1958 to 1964, the film focuses on virginal Virginia beauty queen Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), an actress who’s new to Hollywood, and Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a chauffeur who drives her around.
As Frank’s prurient colleague Levar (Matthew Broderick) endlessly reminds him, any relationship between one of Hughes’ male employees and a contract actress is a sackable offence, but there’s undeniable chemistry between the two youngsters. Neither of them have met their reclusive employer before, but as they separately come face to face with him, both of their lives change dramatically.
The opening quote, which may or may not have been correctly attributed to Hughes, is “never check an interesting fact.” This proves to be an unambiguous mission statement for the spirit of the screwball biopic ahead, but there’s both drama and comedy in the relationship between these two characters and their increasingly erratic boss.
Early on, it feels as if it’s been cut within an inch of its life. At 127 minutes, it’s not short or sharp, but the editing breathlessly bounces us between characters and moods in a way that’s quite disorienting at first. This does lend itself nicely to the nervous flirtation between the young leads – Ehrenreich plays significantly brighter than his scene-stealing character in Hail, Caesar but is doubly charming, while Collins is immaculate as the ingénue.
You can pinpoint the moment when it hits its rhythm, in the transition from Hughes refusing radio assistance during a risky test flight, to a post-crash Hughes, mummified in bandages and resting up in a prototype reclining hospital bed. As the film goes on, Beatty’s twinkly, high maintenance performance – his first acting turn since 2001’s Town & Country – ends up distracting somewhat from the core romance, but this feels inevitable for the period in which the film takes place.
The premise of a forbidden romance springs forth from Hughes’ #1 rule, but the film also feels bound to reference any and all other trivial bits and bobs from the years in which it’s set. The infinitesimal supporting roles for the likes of Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Ed Harris, Oliver Platt and Steve Coogan (all doing great work) don’t pull our attention away from the centre, but Beatty’s interactions with Collins and Ehrenreich gradually overtake their early sweet scenes together just as Hughes’ personality overtakes their romance.
The centrepiece of the film proves to be both the start and the high point of this trend. Hughes and Marla have a pivotal meeting in his living room while his film Hell’s Angels is projected in the background. In the most cinematic light imaginable, one character winds up drunk and the other winds up weeping, and from the unlikely starting point of a weakly farcical misunderstanding, it’s a surprisingly moving scene. Collins has never been better than she is in this film and she’s never better in this film than in that scene.
Rules Don’t Apply feels as scatterbrained as the legendary figure who inspired its starcrossed romance, but in its lucid moments, it’s just as compelling to be around too. It’s much too choppy and functional early on to breathe as a film of this vintage requires, and it feels like one of those rare films that would have benefited from being half an hour longer. Still, Beatty’s return to filmmaking reflects the halcyon Hollywood in a slightly unflattering light, and you don’t have to watch too closely to catch the occasional glint of genius.