Warren Beatty turns 80 next year, and he’s been talking about directing a film on Howard Hughes for decades. So we’re allowed to assume that Rules Don’t Apply might have the air of a grand opus about it, that it would wear the sobriety suitable to an Oscar-winning filmmaker and elder Hollywood royalty. And that assumption would be wrong. Because whatever else is going on with this movie, it’s quick, jokey, and lively as hell. At times it seems as daffy as the oddball billionaire depicted, but it generally has something thoughtful to say—when it comes to Hughesiana, it’s a more original project than the Scorsese/DiCaprio Aviator.
The movie’s timeline is roughly 1958 to 1964, but (as an opening title card warns us) many of the events portrayed here happened at other times in Hughes’ life. And Hughes—played by Beatty—is not our primary focus. We follow two wide-eyed innocents into Eisenhower-era Hollywood, both on Hughes’ payroll. Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) is a small-town beauty-pageant princess who wants to write songs; she and her mother (Annette Bening) take up residence in one of Hughes’ vacant L.A. homes. Mom is a devout Baptist, and Marla is militantly virginal. Marla’s driver is an ambitious lad from Fresno, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich); he and Marla take a shine to each other, but their religious upbringings keep them from consummating the attraction. So does a warning from Hughes’ right-hand man (Matthew Broderick) that anybody messing with the starlets will be out of a job.
Messing with the starlets is, of course, Hughes’ role, and in a couple of kooky scenes in a low-lit bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, that’s what happens. But Beatty takes pains to suggest that Hughes is driven less by old-fashioned lechery and more by his own odd obsessions (banana-nut ice cream, bottled water from Maine, brassieres) and a strain of nostalgia. Beatty shares the nostalgia: This is a first-hand reminiscence by someone who knows how Hollywood lived back then, and the gorgeous surfaces—photographed by the great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel—practically vibrate with the glow of lost Eden.
Beatty’s too smart to settle for nostalgia, though, which is where the film’s humor and eccentricity come in. His suggestions about what drives Hughes are shrewdly drawn, from daddy issues to a yearning for innocence. And there’s something barbed and timely about the title, which comes from Frank’s insistence that rules don’t apply to certain people—he means Marla, but it could refer to the main trio here. Somewhere along the way, Beatty loses this thread; the plot has to veer off for a delayed postscript, which echoes Beatty’s very first movie, Splendor in the Grass.
So there’s vagueness at the center of the thing, like the creampuff Hughes shares with Marla in one long seduction scene. But along the way, Rules Don’t Apply offers a variety of pleasures, some admittedly of a throwback variety (there’s actually a title song, penned by Marla and crooned by her at a crucial moment). The cast is strong, with a gallery of names filling out small roles, including Alec Baldwin, Steve Coogan, Candice Bergen, and Martin Sheen. Beatty’s own performance is buoyant, and he proves his directing mettle in the terrific turns by up-and-comers Collins (Mirror Mirror) and Ehrenreich (the cowpoke star in Hail, Caesar!, and incidentally the new Han Solo).
This is the first film Beatty has directed since 1998’s Bulworth, and only the fifth in a career that includes the marvelously inventive Reds. He’s a famous ditherer who, during his period of superstardom, turned down more famous roles than he actually played. This has a way of putting a great deal of weight on his movies that actually surface, and Rules Don’t Apply won’t be helped by those expectations. But it’s a relief to see a Hollywood film that doesn’t have anything to prove, or even a need to please—this feels like the least audience-tested movie in years. For its very offbeat whimsy, and a sprightliness that leaves many younger filmmakers looking poky, Rules Don’t Apply is more than welcome. Rules Don’t Apply, Rated PG-13. Opens Wed., Nov. 23 at various theaters.