Rules Don’t Apply is an old-school Hollywood movie with throwback Hollywood pleasures. But it’s also unusual enough it's never quite the movie you think you’d get. It starts in the early 60s at the bottom of the business, with two fresh-faced young people ready to make a go of careers in showbiz. There’s a meek but determined chauffer for the Howard Hughes companies (Alden Ehrenreich) who hopes to one day actually meet the man and propose a real estate venture. There’s a comely chaste Christian beauty queen (Lily Collins) invited to L.A. to be under contract, put up in a fancy bungalow, and given a salary of $400 a month while awaiting a screen test. They’re each just one of many such people in the Hughes universe, drivers and ingénues kept waiting for a day he may need them, underlings getting by despite the rules and stipulations that come with their paychecks. Of course these two sweet young people start making eyes at each other, progress to light flirting, and eventually might even fall into something like unspoken love underneath their contract’s strict no-fraternization policy. The setup is there for a frothy farce, a gentle rom-com, but it keeps getting crashed into, stirred up, distracted and diverted by the mad man running the show.
That’s the movie’s appeal, a handsome period piece comedy steered by the choppy, unpredictable whims of its outsized supporting player. Hughes, the eccentric billionaire, is by this time of his life retreating into isolation and madness. He’s a figure of mystery, star-power held at first off screen, then hiding in dark rooms or barking orders over the phone. When he’s not around, his power and influence dominates nonetheless. It’s fitting, then, that Warren Beatty, one of Hollywood’s most famous leading men once upon a time, plays him. Now 79, the multi-hyphenate behind Reds and Dick Tracy hasn’t appeared on screen in 15 years, a long absence for someone of his stature, so his impeccably delayed arrival mirrors Hughes’ reclusiveness. When he finally does appear, stuttering, drifting off topic, lost in his own thoughts, giving in to his eccentricities, we can feel the sense of his fading glory by seeing Beatty play up how little cool he brings to the part. He still has charisma, but he funnels it into a figure who is losing his, and who maintains it through wealthy and mystery. He has a great Movie Star entrance, but soon commands the screen by being both more and less than you’d think.
Beatty, who also wrote and directed this passion project (his first behind-the-camera work in nearly 20 years), uses himself sparingly. He lets the picture sit squarely with the youngsters who are struggling to get ahead by using Hughes’ erratic largess and ignoring or indulging his inconsistent follow-through. This fizzy youthful possibility simmering as sublimated romantic interest powers the movie’s rushing sensation of lives out of control. Hughes is desperately trying to hang on to his business interests as investors cast doubts on his ability to manage his assets while an odd, stubborn recluse. He wants control – an idea that extends from his particular instructions about every aspect of his life, down to the behaviors of his underlings – even to the point of changing his mind simply because he can. (Or because he makes so many frivolous micromanaged decisions he can hardly keep track of them all.) It’s a tremendous part Beatty’s written for himself – simultaneously fumbling with befuddled humor and carrying a constant underlying gloom – which is all the more effective for occupying the unusual position of driving the plot while staying on the margins.
Clearly wrestled into submission, the just-over-two-hours final picture has four credited editors and a brisk pace, rocketing through scenes and developments with a quick chop-chop-chop attitude. A host of great actors (Martin Sheen, Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen, Annette Benning, Haley Bennett, Megan Hilty, Paul Schneider, Taissa Farmiga, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Oliver Platt, Alec Baldwin, and many more) waltzes through small roles, clearly enjoying chewing meaty material in fun scenes. None stay long, but all add immeasurably to the texture and personality of the worlds in which our leads swim. (The ensemble is so stuffed, the performers must’ve shown up at the mere call to be in Beatty movie. Or maybe they all had larger roles in earlier cuts.) The zippy speed feeds the fast pace of life lived according to an unpredictable boss, and the rushing energy of young people trying not to be in love. The pair at the film’s center do, after all, seem perfect for each other. They’re cute – Collins with young Hollywood’s most expressive eyebrows, while Ehrenreich is blessed with one of his generation’s most sympathetic half-squints – trading rat-a-tat dialogue with screwball aplomb.
As the mechanics of the plot send the young nearly-lovers together and then apart, into their own personal setbacks while chasing diverging goals and unsettled futures, there’s a tinge of melancholy that settles over Caleb Deschanel’s warm cinematography. Hughes, too, serves as a funhouse mirror reflecting and refracting (in addition to compounding) their problems. Here’s a man who turned his father’s company into a global success, and still feels empty inside, trying to fill futile days with pretty women to ogle, underlings to boss around, and technology to futz with. (There’s a pretty terrific reaction shot of a speaker, dryly funny as an emphasis of loneliness when one character’s over-the-phone revelation is met with icy silence.) Beatty knows how to get the tragicomic mixture in exactly the right proportions, and the film’s paradoxical frantic meandering settles into a lovely rhythm of dramatic and comedic incidents, big laughs that can get swiftly choked off in a poignant pause. It’s as spirited on the surface as it is sad and reflective underneath even the bubbliest moments. It’s a big glossy movie working in the spirit of a small scrappy one.