Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply Is Uneven, Yet Revealing

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Photo: 20th Century Fox

It would be lovely to report that Rules Don’t Apply, the Howard Hughes saga that is Warren Beatty’s comeback as director, writer, and star, is the twilight-of-life sex comedy that he has been inching toward for years. (Given the sparseness of his output, perhaps that should read, “quarter-of-an-inching towards.”) But Beatty’s a little out of shape as a director, and the movie is choppy, meandering, and weird in a way that isn’t particularly illuminating. Scratch that — it’s illuminating in the glimpses it offers into Beatty’s own peculiar psyche. That’s not a negligible feat. His obsessions might not necessarily be ours, but Beatty has been wrestling with highly personal projects for half a century; and he’s a genuine Hollywood archetype as an actor, director, and, of course, offscreen swordsman. What he projects onto Hughes tells us something about how a megalomaniac contemplates the dying of the light.

Beatty plays Hughes in late life, when the millionaire/billionaire (his fortunes waxed and waned and waxed again) was making the transition from Los Angeles semi-recluse to Las Vegas total recluse (and hoarder and paranoiac). The movie begins in the early ’60s with the Vegas Hughes, who has taken to his curtained bed while a battery of reporters waits for a phone call from him in response to Clifford Irving’s so-called authorized biography (a legendary hoax). But most of Rules Don’t Apply is an L.A. flashback centering on Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), an amazingly pretty young Baptist woman who has been whisked (along with her buttoned-up mother, played by Annette Bening) to Hollywood to audition for a vaunted Hughes movie contract. Along with other prospective “discoveries,” she’ll stay in a bungalow, take classes in speech and movement, get an elaborate screen test, and maybe, just maybe, meet the big man himself, who tends at his age to remain in the shadows.

In the shadows is where most of Beatty’s scenes are shot. Famously particular about how he’s lighted, he teases us for a while with the sound of his voice but remains just off camera. He makes Marla wait. He makes us wait ... and wait. When he finally shuffles in, the scene is dim and alienating — and conceptually brilliant. Hughes isn’t all there but, as an actor, Beatty is still surprising. His Hughes sits down with Marla to a meal of TV dinners (Salisbury Steak, I believe) on twin tables and barely makes small talk: He seems arrested between the desire to hide and the desire to seduce the girl with what he hopes is boyish charm. I didn’t recognize Beatty’s vocal patterns from other roles. He’s doddery. At times, he stammers like his old friend, the late Garry Shandling. (In the half-light he looks a little like Shandling, too.)

I wish there were more Hughes in Rules Don’t Apply, but he’s in and out. The focus is on two much less-distinctive characters, the confused Marla and a chauffeur named Frank, played by Alden Ehrenreich. Most of Hughes’s more lowly employees were Mormons, the thinking being that Mormons will be more obedient and less likely to touch the female goods. But Frank is cut from a different cloth. He’s a Methodist. He has also had furtive sex with his deeply religious fiancée back in Bakersfield, which makes him — in Marla’s eyes, anyway — already married. And Frank has dreams that transcend his faith. He wants to be Hughes’s personal driver. He wants to get into the inner circle. And along with the other male characters, he wants Marla something fierce.

Marla might want him back — but she doesn’t want Hughes. Imagine a Beatty movie in which he’s the opposite of catnip to the ladies. I’m not sure he has before this, unless as a comic stunt. In Rules Don’t Apply, his Hughes is not just mummified and bizarre. He’d also be having sex with a girl over the horrified objections of a mother played by Beatty’s wife (and the mother of his own children).

The ick factor suffuses all, especially when Hughes uses a flunky (Matthew Broderick) as a veritable pimp. Meanwhile, he watches old movies of himself in his prime, virile in aviator garb, squiring around the world’s most desirable actresses. He does fly the virtually unfly-able Spruce Goose and has a moment or two of success in handling his public image. But the final impression — bolstered by hindsight — is of a man who’s so rich and powerful that he is able to purchase the right to indulge his craziness. In effect, he buys his own insanity.

Yes, this is a character, and Beatty himself is by all accounts hale. But after a couple of prime decades of seemingly terminable indecision, he likely sees Hughes as what might have been — in bad ways but also good, if you consider the youth and beauty of the women he beds. That way would have lied madness, but oh, the power and oh, the pussy.

This is more than enough neurosis on which to build a fascinating movie. But the supporting cast (a fine one, with Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Candace Bergen, Paul Schneider, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan) looks so tentative, it’s as if Beatty were feeding them their lines. (They’re supposed to look tentative around Hughes, but the scenes aren’t shaped to bring out their comic potential.) Scenes in which Hughes orders his people to buy up all the discontinued Baskin and Robbins’ Banana Nut ice cream are amusing, but the timing is flabby in the all-important scenes between Collins and Ehrenreich (who had so much pep in the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!). The movie’s title refers to both Marla and Hughes, but it also speaks (perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not) to Beatty’s own sense of entitlement. He doesn’t seem to be trying to please his audience.

Midway through Rules Don’t Apply, strains of Mahler waft up from the Hollywood Bowl below Marla’s bungalow, and after that, Mahler at his most morose is all over the soundtrack. This is music I cherish, but it’s all wrong. Beatty is trying to elevate the material while at the same time draining it of energy. The movie is so misbegotten that it’s almost poignant. But I hope Beatty has a few more left in him.