Billionaire Howard Hughes managed to make the Hughes H-4 Hercules (more commonly known as the “Spruce Goose”) take flight, albeit for just a brief moment, despite its gargantuan size and wooden construction. One has to wonder if this aviation legend could have held “Rules Don’t Apply” aloft.
While writer-director Warren Beatty’s movie about Hughes is crafted of the finest materials, it too remains mostly earthbound, defying gravity only in fits and starts.
But in the same way that the Spruce Goose remains a record-holder (it’s got the largest wingspan of any plane in history) and a tourist attraction, “Rules Don’t Apply” still demands to be seen as a display of legends and a launching pad for two very talented up-and-comers.
The film acknowledges both Hughes’ genius and his mental instability, and it similarly recalls 1950s Hollywood as the epicenter of both unthinkable glamour and unmistakable sleaze. Who better than Beatty to tell this story? He’s one of the few survivors of that bygone era who’s still a show business icon, and he must certainly relate at least a little bit to Hughes’s perfectionism, reclusiveness and storied sexual prowess.
Beatty immediately tips his hand that this movie isn’t to be mistaken for biography, opening with the Hughes quote, “Never check an interesting fact.” It’s telling that the name “Howard Hughes” is uttered about 100 times in “Rules Don’t Apply” before the man himself appears on camera. In the meantime, we get to know two of the fictional-but-truthy satellites in the great man’s orbit: chauffeur Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, “Hail, Caesar!”) and starlet Marla Maybury (Lily Collins, “Mirror Mirror”), the latter hand-picked by Hughes to be an RKO contract player in 1959 after she won the “Apple Blossom Queen” pageant.
Of course, Marla soon discovers that she is one of many young actresses being groomed for the studio; they take classes every day, and they each have a driver so that Hughes can keep tabs on them. After weeks go by without a meeting with the mogul, much less a screen test, Marla’s mother (Annette Bening) wants to go back to Alabama, but Marla insists on staying in Hollywood, at least partially because of a growing spark between her and Frank. (Any hanky-panky between the drivers and the actresses is, of course, strictly verboten.)
Hughes eventually enters the picture as a man who can make dreams come true — Marla wants to be in the movies, Frank would like him to invest in a real-estate development he’s created — but this guy is no Santa Claus; he exists in darkened rooms, subsists on TV dinners and banana nut ice cream, refuses to meet face-to-face with the money men who could keep his ownership of TWA afloat, and seems most concerned that someone will try to have him committed, thus stripping him of his company and his lucrative defense contracts.
The Marla-Frank story is quite lovely — Ehrenreich and Collins have great chemistry, underscored by legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel shooting them like movie stars of yore – and the tale of Hughes in his later years is a potentially fascinating one. Unfortunately, the screenplay of “Rules Don’t Apply” (Bo Goldman shares a story credit with Beatty) never quite figures out how to make the two coexist. Jonathan Demme’s “Melvin and Howard” reduced Hughes to just a handful of scenes; still enough to score Jason Robards a well-earned Oscar nomination, but not so much that he dominated the proceedings.
Here, Hughes plays a role in the lives of the young lovebirds, to be sure, but narratively speaking, we’re left with two parallel streams that never reach an isthmus, even though Beatty makes Hughes recognizably human and also fascinatingly bizarre, and his scenes with both Ehrenreich and Collins register.
Even if there are two movies happening here, they’re both fascinating, particularly given how Beatty so cannily mixes old-fashioned filmmaking (there’s even a title song that figures into the story) with contemporary attitudes about wealth and sexuality. And since a Warren Beatty movie is such an event – the last film he directed was 1998’s “Bulworth” – you can sense the enthusiasm of the top-notch artists on both sides of the camera. Matthew Broderick and Candice Bergen turn up throughout as members of Hughes’s inner circle, and Oliver Platt has a hilarious meltdown as a Merrill Lynch exec who can’t get facetime with the barmy magnate.
But yes, that’s Megan Hilty briefly popping up as an RKO starlet (thus proving that she was the right Marilyn on “Smash” all along), and that’s Kyle Bornheimer in the wordless role of a hospital attendant, and that’s Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in one brief scene as the parents of Frank’s fiancée in Fresno.
Beatty had long discussed making a Hughes movie, and whether or not “The Aviator” changed his plans to create a straight biopic, “Rules Don’t Apply” winds up being a tale of young love with billionaire-as-oddball-guardian-angel at the margins. Ehrenreich and Collins’s stars have already been on the rise, but they’ve never been displayed to audiences with such love and reverence. It’s a build-up that Hughes himself would admire.