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'Rules Don't Apply,' Warren Beatty's directorial return, is disarmingly light

Beatty directs and stars in 'Rules,' which centers on a young actress (Lily Collins) and a driver (Alden Ehrenreich) and also stars Beatty as Howard Hughes.

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    Warren Beatty stars as Howard Hughes in ‘Rules Don’t Apply.’
    FRANÇOIS DUHAMEL/AP
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Warren Beatty has not acted in a movie in 15 years or directed one in 18. His return to the screen in “Rules Don’t Apply” – as director, star, writer, and co-producer – should by all rights be an occasion for more than mere fond memories. Given his iconic status, Beatty, who began his movie acting career with a bang in 1961 with “Splendor in the Grass,” has made relatively few films, but at least two of them, “Bonnie and Clyde” and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” are among the greatest Hollywood movies of all time.

In “Rules Don’t Apply,” he is playing Howard Hughes, a person with whom he has long been obsessed, though the two never met. For decades, Beatty’s Hughes project was rumored to be on the launchpad, only to sputter out yet again. What is curious, and oddly pleasing, about “Rules Don’t Apply” is that it doesn’t come across as one of those long-gestating dream projects that, when it finally ends up onscreen, often seems well past its expiration date. For the most part, it’s disarmingly light. 

The film begins in 1958, which is also around the time Beatty came to Hollywood. It’s a while before Hughes even makes his entrance, and when he finally does, emerging somewhat from the shadows but still shrouded in mystery, he’s no less an enigma. It’s the kind of entrance usually accorded a Hollywood monster – I thought of Boris Karloff’s Mummy – but the Hughes who grudgingly reveals his face and form is curiously benign. He prattles haphazardly about financial snafus and TWA and screen tests and aeronautics, and yet he never quite seems demented to us. There’s a wiliness to his ramblings; his eccentricities, whether he means for them to do so or not, keep his allies and competitors constantly off balance.

In a technical sense, “Rules Don’t Apply” isn’t a Hughes biopic at all, even though Hughes is its core. Its two featured players, both charmingly played, occupy the screen long before Hughes shows up. Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) is a churchgoing ingénue from Virginia who has arrived in Hollywood with her mother (Annette Bening, terrific as always) to do a screen test for Hughes. Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is Marla’s limousine driver and a Hughes employee (despite not yet having set eyes on his employer). More an aspiring songwriter than an actress, Marla is so fresh-faced that her radiance seems almost preternatural. She enthusiastically refers to herself as “the virgin Baptist.” Frank, with a religious upbringing to match Marla’s, is her male counterpart. That these two should become entranced is no surprise, but the confluence of Hughes and Hollywood makes things not so simple. Hughes, who keeps 25 other young starlets on the hook, has strict rules about any sort of intramural hanky-panky – except, of course, when he exerts his own authority. 

Beatty, as a director, captures the Hollywood of the early 1960s as the showbiz culture moved haltingly from an enforced primness into something more unruly and liberating. But he doesn’t dig deeply into the ways in which studio moguls and powerhouses like Hughes might have used and abused people. Even though Hughes creates havoc in the lives of Marla and virtually all in his circle, he comes across in the end like a harmless old fud. Beatty, as a director and actor, is so intent on making Hughes such a forlorn and poignant figure of affection that he severely skimps the man’s spooky, perverse essence. What Beatty is after with Hughes is something far more congenial. 

Despite Beatty’s reputation as a Lothario both on- and off-screen, it’s worth noting that he has almost always played men – John McCabe, Clyde Barrow, John Reed, Jay Billington Bulworth, etc. – who are romantically tentative, almost passive. (This is also true of other iconic male screen idols often mischaracterized as ardent Romeos, including Paul Newman and Marcello Mastroianni.) Now in his late 70s, Beatty is content to play out a charming, vitiated variation on his Lothario image, and he seems to be enjoying himself, which often makes the movie itself enjoyable. 

He surrounds himself with a galaxy of well-known actors, including Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen, and Martin Sheen, but they are barely in the movie. Marla and Frank, for all their prominence, seem barely in the movie, too. “Rules Don’t Apply” is really all about Hughes, or to be more precise, Beatty’s long-standing and complicated connection to Hughes. The complications have been smoothed out. This is a movie about how one’s passion can burn away and leave in its place a vast nostalgia. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements, and drug references.)

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