Warren Beatty, in his first film in 15 years, plays Howard Hughes with the seductive charm, sneaky intelligence and bugfuck eccentricity that this marvelous, mysterious enigma deserves. Who wouldn’t want to build a movie around him? But Beatty, as actor, director and screenwriter, has chosen to make Hughes a supporting role. In Rules Don’t Apply, the 79-year-old triple threat puts the focus on two fresh newbies who work for the reclusive billionaire. Alden Ehrenreich, soon to play the young Han Solo and richly funny in Hail Caesar, is stranded here as Frank Forbes, the boyish driver that Hughes hires to squire around starlets for his own illicit purposes. In 1958 Hollywood, the power player brings the cuties to private rooms and hotel suites, where he sits them in the dark and serves them frozen TV dinners on lap trays. Sex after that? Who could resist?
The latest candidate for a mentorship in movies is Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a virgin-till-marriage type who arrives in L.A. chaperoned by her rigid mother, played by Annette Bening. Hughes forbids any relationships between his employees, so much of Rules Don’t Apply concerns Methodist Frank and Baptist Marla not getting it on with each other. Ehrenreich and Collins, daughter of Phil, are good company. But wasting time with their adolescent flirting seems a shame since Hughes is infinitely more intriguing. Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed a younger version of the 20th-century titan in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. And though aircraft is featured in here, this version of the recluse is more randy than mechanical.
Still, it’s clear that Beatty, who has studied Hughes for decades, has an instinctive understanding of the man, from getting stuck on phrases he repeats endlessly to making deals he can’t wait to run away from. No kids. No roots. Sex, movies and aviation are the only constants. Why? Beatty hints, but never tells us. But his performance, filled with comic bite and aching confusion, teases a much deeper portrait.