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D: Warren Beatty / 127m

Cast: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen, Haley Bennett, Megan Hilty, Paul Schneider, Alec Baldwin, Oliver Platt, Taissa Farmiga, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Paul Sorvino, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan

Not counting the TV short, Dick Tracy Special (2010), this is Warren Beatty’s first time behind the camera since Bulworth (1998). That movie was a pithy, satirical look at (then) modern US politics, but eighteen years on, Beatty’s skill as a director isn’t on quite such good form. Rules Don’t Apply focuses on Howard Hughes’ life between 1958 and 1964, and adds a fictional romance to bolster the main storyline (which the movie can’t decide on). It’s not a bad movie per se, just one that isn’t sure which one of three stories it wants to focus on.

The first story concerns Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich), who has just started for Hughes as a driver. He has a fianceé back home, Sarah (Farmiga), and a dream to build affordable housing at an undeveloped location just outside Los Angeles. Working for Hughes, though, is somewhat limiting, and for the most part he acts as a chauffeur for some of the actresses Hughes has under contract. The second story concerns one of those actresses, the fresh from Virginia, Marla Mabrey (Collins). Accompanied by her mother, Lucy (Bening), Marla is excited to meet the great Howard Hughes, and screen test for a movie called Sally Starlight. But as time goes on, she doesn’t get to meet him, and the screen test seems increasingly unlikely to happen. But she and Frank hit it off, and soon there’s the beginning of a romance. Her mother, however, returns home, leaving Marla to navigate the treacherous waters of reachable fame – and with Frank’s help.

The third story has Hughes showing signs of the strange behaviour that will eventually see his ownership of Trans-World Airlines (TWA) challenged by the US government. He refuses to see people, makes appointments that he doesn’t keep, and generally acts as if the concerns of other people are irrelevant. But eventually he and Marla meet, and he meets Frank also. Hughes takes a shine to Marla, and he begins to trust Frank, and it seems their careers are set. But their relationship takes an unexpected turn, and they grow estranged from each other. Meanwhile, Hughes becomes more and more withdrawn from the world, and begins to show clear signs of dementia, demanding things like all the available quantity of a certain flavour of ice cream (and then wanting another), and repeating himself over and over. What seemed eccentric only a few years before, now seems detrimental to both his health and his wealth. Frank stands by him, now as a personal assistant, while Marla moves away to start her life over…

On paper, Rules Don’t Apply has all the hallmarks of a very good movie indeed. It has Beatty in the role of Howard Hughes (a project he’s been planning for around forty years), a supporting cast who all do a terrific job, a recreation of the period that includes broad vistas of cities such as Los Angeles and London as they were at the time, individual scenes that carry both emotional weight and poignancy, and provides a somewhat caustic examination of wished-for fame and fortune. But the movie also has difficulty in making Hughes, or indeed any of the characters, sympathetic, and it flits between each of the storylines without always allowing them to flourish or become integral to the overall narrative.

The romance between Marla and Frank starts typically for the period with lots of exchanged glances and oblique references to the relevance of sex before marriage (Frank has, Marla hasn’t). It’s an old-fashioned courtship, made slightly more awkward by Hughes’ insistence that if any of his employees take any kind of interest in his actresses, then they’ll be fired. However, although this is mentioned on several occasions (as if the audience won’t get it the first time), in the end it makes no difference, as Hughes has no idea about them, and the few people who do know – fellow driver, Levar (Broderick), Hughes’ personal secretary, Nadine (Bergen) – don’t say anything anyway. There’s plenty of unnecessary repetition in terms of Hughes not seeing people, or making strange decisions, and it all pads out the movie, making it feel unfocused and willfully disjointed.

In the end, it’s Beatty’s script, and some of it is really, really good, but some scenes could have been excised and it wouldn’t have made any difference to the overall story. It would have made it a lot tighter, though, and kept the audience more involved. As the romance between Marla and Frank begins to crumble, and Hughes’ dispute with potential investors in TWA takes centre stage, the movie attempts to show Hughes both in decline and also more self-aware than people believed at the time. (Beatty’s script avoids the uncomfortable fact that at this period in his life, Hughes had already taken to spending long periods of time alone and naked watching movies in places such as a bungalow at the Beverly Hills hotel.) Beatty’s intention seems to be to idolise the man while at the same time admitting that he was flawed, a circumstance that causes the movie to seem undecided in terms of what audiences should make of him.

This all leaves the movie feeling and sounding less dramatic than it should be, with only the occasional confrontation jolting things out of the cosy, straightforward approach that Beatty adopts as director. Inert in certain stretches, and lacking depth in others, the movie is rescued from being completely disappointing thanks to its cast. As the billionaire who marries in order to avoid being committed to an insane asylum, Beatty steals every scene he’s in because he still has that old-time star charisma. There’s a good-natured, yet inherently pathological bent to his performance, and Hughes’ unpredictable nature, complete with vacant stares, bemused glances and paranoid outbursts, is explored with the kind of range and subtlety – in both diction and movement – that makes Beatty still such a good actor. Unfortunately, both Marla and Frank, being original characters created for the movie, don’t feel as well-rounded, and their romance is tepid, and not entirely believable, as Collins and Ehrenreich – very good individually – don’t have the chemistry necessary to make audiences believe in them as a couple.

Elsewhere, Broderick and Bening are superb, there are lots of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances from the likes of Sorvino, Harris and Coleman, and a very funny cameo from Coogan as a British pilot forced to sit back and watch Hughes deliberately cause the engines to fail while up in the sky for a joyride. There are other humorous moments in the movie, many in fact, and most of them are in service to the characters, but as they’re mixed in with the drama and the romance and aren’t always played out at the best moments, some viewers may find that the comedy is forced rather than organic. Ultimately, and despite the best efforts of Beatty as writer and director, the various elements on display don’t gel to good enough effect, and this makes the movie less compelling and (often) too bland. A more immediate approach, and a more historically accurate one, may have made for a better movie – we’ll never know – but what is certain is that Beatty’s passion project, after forty years, isn’t as passionate an experience as he may have hoped it would be.

Rating: 5/10 – slow and repetitive aren’t the best of bedfellows when it comes to creating a drama about one of the most intriguing and distinctive billionaires of the twentieth century, and Rules Don’t Apply suffers accordingly; Beatty the actor is terrific, but is let down by Beatty the writer and director, and although the first half hour is briliantly executed, the rest of the movie falls short of that initial promise and settles instead for the kind of soap opera theatrics that never ring true, no matter how hard everyone tries.