By any sane measure, "Rules Don't Apply" is a mess — over-written and under-conceived, shapeless, strange, and sometimes icky. But it's a Warren Beatty movie, the first he has directed in 15 years, and, well, the rules don't apply. This is not a well-made film but it is an enjoyable one, in part because it's genuinely unpredictable and in part because it's a pleasure to see one of the great stars of his era on a movie screen once more.
Beatty's "Howard Hughes project" has been in the works, on and off, for decades, and now that it's here, it still feels like it hasn't quite left the drawing board. The lead characters are a pair of youngsters who work for Hughes in the late 1950s: Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), who's a driver in the billionaire's empire and who hopes to sell him on a land deal in the Hollywood hills, and Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a.k.a. "the virgin Marla," a sweet and almost painfully pretty young Baptist who has arrived in town, accompanied by her mother (Annette Bening), as the latest of Hughes's contract starlets.
Neither of the two has met their employer, and neither do we until about 25 minutes in. Hughes has rules — many, many rules — and the one that forbids drivers and starlets consorting with each other, let alone falling in love, is the one that tests Frank and Marla most sorely. Ehrenreich is on tap to play the young Han Solo; Collins is singer Phil Collins's daughter but hasn't inherited any of his looks except the eyebrows. The two are quite charming, even if Beatty's script (from a story by him and Bo Goldman) requires them to do silly and sometimes unbelievable things in the name of romantic farce.
Gradually the seven veils are whisked away and there's Beatty's Hughes: aged, physically strapping but emotionally out to lunch, eccentric to the point of paranoia. He keeps his minions and business partners whirling in confusion with demands that are mercurial and often nonsensical, but the star freights the strangeness with an absent-mindedness that shades slowly into pathos. Beatty has always had an attractive air of detachment, as if he were pondering his next romantic conquest rather than the scene he's playing, and it gives his Hughes both charisma and a measure of suspense.
Beatty appears to have cast those minions and business partners from his phone book, and it's a big phone book. In roles medium-size to tiny are Matthew Broderick and Martin Sheen, Ed Harris and Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen and Steve Coogan, and Paul Sorvino and Dabney Coleman. All that's missing is Robert Duvall as the Secret Square. They all mill around looking for guidance, as uncertain of Beatty's endgame as their characters are of Hughes. That sense of caprice — or is it vanity? — provides the real dramatic tension of "Rules Don't Apply," rather than the silly little love story that, after a while, goes preposterously astray. (Once a sex symbol, always a sex symbol, I guess — but still.)
That the filmmaker doesn't intend any of this very seriously is tipped by his playful mixing and matching of the eras of Hughes's life. We're supposedly in the late 1950s/early 1960s, but the Clifford Irving hoax from the 1970s is here, as well as the billionaire aviator's 1940s struggles with the giant airplane dubbed the Spruce Goose. I guess the rules don't apply to biographical chronology, either.
Fine; Beatty is after something more ephemeral than biography. I think he wants to explore the comedy and tragedy of an American original as he was perceived (and misperceived) by everyone around him, including himself. That a man who was once the most major of movie stars might know something about this is not unthinkable. That he might spin it into a wobbly, funny, weird, and touching waltz in the sunset is serendipity.
★ ★ ½
RULES DON'T APPLY
Directed by Warren Beatty. Written by Beatty and Bo Goldman. Starring Beatty, Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick. At Boston Common, Fenway, West Newton, suburbs. 126 minutes. PG-13 (sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements, drug references).