Warren Beatty has been away from the screen for so long—some fifteen years—that one might have forgotten what a charismatic presence he is. His first appearance in “Rules Don’t Apply” is staged to take maximum advantage of his absence, showing him obscured by shadow until he steps into the light and his face is revealed. It’s a clever touch, managed nicely by Beatty as both actor and director, as well as by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and the lighting crew.
Until that point the picture has focused—apart from a prologue set in 1972, when the reclusive Hughes was scheduled to speak in a teleconference call to debunk Clifford Irving’s hoax autobiography (a coda will conclude the episode)—on other characters. One is Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a callow young fellow who’s arrived in Los Angeles in the late fifties to work as one of many drivers in the Hughes operation, alongside the already established Levar Mathis (Matthew Broderick). Frank, who hopes to enlist Hughes’s aid in buying a parcel of land for a housing project, is assigned as one of the chauffeurs for Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a naïve ingénue who has been plucked from obscurity in her Virginia town to become one of Hughes’s many contract players. Accompanied by her stern Baptist mother Lucy (Annette Bening), she anticipates getting a quick screen test, but instead she and Lucy find themselves, like Frank, kept at arm’s length from the mogul by his army of staff, including lawyer Noah Dietrich (Martin Sheen) and private secretary Nadine Henly (Candice Bergen).
Over time Frank and Marla develop an increasingly affectionate relationship, despite a prohibition on any fraternization from Hughes himself—and the fact that Frank is planning to marry his longtime sweetheart Sarah (Taissa Farmiga) back home. It’s at this point, however, that Beatty’s Hughes enters the story in a major way and effectively takes it over, gradually promoting Frank to the status of trusted aide and becoming intimate with Sarah—although, in a twist that has a bit of “Lolita” to it, it is she who—under the first-time influence of champagne—makes the move on the shy eccentric.
From this point the movie really centers on Hughes, with everybody else—including Frank and Sarah—revolving around him like planets around the sun. Beatty obviously enjoys taking center stage as Hughes careens through the country and beyond it, on the run from creditors and investigators or avoiding personal contact even with those who might lend him substantial sums. In the process, however, the romantic coupling of Frank and Sarah is thrown into the shadow, with Frank becoming more and more Hughes’s primary factotum until Sarah reappears, first with news and then with a newcomer (Evan O’Toole) in tow. Her return leads to that coda, and to a resolution of the romance.
It can hardly be argued that “Rules Don’t Apply” is a particularly well-structured picture. The shifts of emphasis make for a ramshackle affair, but if the movie—as compiled by a quartet of editors (Billy Weber, F. Brian Scofield, Leslie Jones and Robin Gonsalves)—isn’t a model of organization, in that respect it seems to reflect Hughes, who was a seat-of-the-pants kind of guy. And while the parts might not fit together perfectly with all the joints meshed, the film is technically as polished as can be. The attention to period detail in Jeannine Oppewall’s production design and Albert Wolsky’s costumes is astounding, and every facet is caught in Deschanel’s lush widescreen images. Musically the film is rather a slapdash affair as well; particularly notable are the strains of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which waft up from the Hollywood Bowl to the house Hughes has provided for Marla half the time that Frank drops her off there. Presumably the orchestra is having trouble playing it to the conductor’s satisfaction.
But despite the occasional signs of disarray, which can probably be attributed to Beatty’s pulling the script together from long research and years of effort, the movie is a mostly enjoyable lark—a character study of a real character, whom Beatty plays to the hilt, with a dash of secondary romance. Ehrenreich and Collins make an agreeable pair, though after the early going they fade into the background, and Bening is a formidable presence initially, though she disappears completely after awhile. The only real constant, besides the principals, is Broderick, who brings his customary laid-back, quizzical shtick to his role. On the other hand, a small army of familiar faces make what are virtual walk-ons; the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them crowd include—in addition to Sheen, Farmiga and Bergen—Alec Baldwin, Haley Bennett, Steve Coogan, Dabney Coleman, Ed Harris, Oliver Platt, Amy Madigan, Chace Crawford, Marshall Bell, Hart Bochner, Eileen Ryan, Michael Badalucco and Paul Sorvino. Everybody wants to work with Warren, it seems (including no fewer than fifteen producers!).
Despite the title, “Rules Don’t Apply” isn’t especially innovative, but it has an old-fashioned, shuffling charm that wins you over in the end. It would serve nicely on a double bill with another film about a larger-than-life figure and the young man who falls under his spell, Richard Linklater’s underappreciated “Me and Orson Welles” (2009).