Howard Hughes has long been an object of fascination for Hollywood. The reclusive mogul carved a trajectory from youthful genius to self-watering stuff of legend as clear and elusive as the vapour trails of one of the airplanes that sustained his fortune. From Martin Scorsese’s straight biopic The Aviator to Jonathan Demme’s oddball gem Melvin and Howard, Hughes has even turned up lightly disguised in the seventh Bond outing Diamonds Are Forever.
Now Warren Beatty plays Howard Robard Hughes Jr. in Rules Don’t Apply, which Beatty also wrote, produced and directed. The actual focus of the film is first on Hughes’ latest employees Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) and Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins). He’s a driver tasked with transporting the latest addition to the RKO/Hughes stable, Marla. With Frank’s help, she is beginning to understand the rules and her own position in the pecking order. They both have dreams a là La La Land, and those dreams bump predictably against the compromises and realities of tinsel town and eventually their enigmatic but wildly eccentric boss.
The appeal of the role for Beatty is obvious: like Hughes, Beatty is himself a legend and similarly much of his best work lies in his early promise. If this had been all, the film could have been an uninteresting vanity project. After all, he plays for the most part a character a good thirty years his junior. However, in allowing his two extremely likeable young leads to do much of the heavy lifting, Rules Don’t Apply has a surprisingly light touch. Their stifled romance – they are both religious – and their fresh faced wonder allows us access to a late fifties America that seemed to arrive already nostalgic about itself. There’s a wry comic sensibility that sees Hughes himself as an absurdity who seems half aware of his own ridiculousness. As one commentator wrote, Hughes was “like a man who not only thinks he’s Napoleon, but can hire an army to prove it”.
Beatty also has the luxury of filling out the smaller character parts to Annette Benning and Matthew Broderick – a wonderfully sleazy confidant to the great man. The only time Rules Don’t Apply begins to falter in the air like his famous lumbering aircraft the Spruce Goose is when we’re asked to care too much about Hughes’ welfare. Perhaps it’s the present political climate but sexually predatory mentally unstable billionaires are just not as fun as they used to be, though the same flat narrative arc – young troubled billionaire struggles against government forces to become old troubled billionaire – also hampered Scorsese’s far more bombastic hagiography. Thankfully, these parts are mostly confined to the 1964 set scenes which bookend this otherwise entertaining and surprisingly low-key portrait of excess.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty