Warren Beatty isn’t very interested in Howard Hughes, the man. He announces as much with an opening credit for his Hughes comedy, “Rules Don’t Apply.”
“Never check an interesting fact,” he quotes Hughes as saying. Did he actually say that? Who knows?
But the rest of “Rules Don’t Apply” is such balderdash, played for comic effect, that we have to buy into the premise and forget everything we know about Hughes. The dates, names, incidents and accidents of his legend are so thoroughly jumbled that remembering Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” is actually a hindrance.
Beatty, who plays Hughes in the picture, tries to give us a movie as wildly eccentric and asymmetrical as the man himself. He’s concocted a random romantic farce that isn’t romantic or particularly farcical.
But random? Yeah. Two hours and nine minutes — Beatty still commands final cut — and at the end, you remember you had to take Grandpa’s Towncar keys away at about the same age (79).
The aim is more “Melvin and Howard” than “The Aviator” or the Tommy Lee Jones TV movie “The Amazing Howard Hughes.” Co-screenwriter Bo Goldman wrote “Melvin and Howard,” and he helps Beatty try to find the Hughes of myth — brilliant, mercurial, veering from lucid to loony and flirting with “rich pervert” the whole time.
In mashing up events from the 1940s to the 1970s, framing the entire movie in Hughes’ famous early 1970s phone press conference debunking Clifford Irving’s hoax biography of him — and incorrectly dating that press conference “1964” and changing Irving’s name — Beatty puts the viewer off balance in much the same way Hughes keeps his various aides, assistants, business associates and limo drivers wrong-footed.
One of the latter is Frank Forbes, played with a trademark earnest dullness by Alden Ehrenreich, who underwhelmed in “Hail, Caesar!” and “Blue Jasmine” and “Stoker.” He’s a nice Christian lad from Fresno charged with picking up aspiring starlet Marla Mabrey and her mom from the airport and delivering them to their new home.
It’s a showplace overlooking Los Angeles from high on a hill, with The Hollywood Bowl just below. Marla, a virginal Christian from Front Royal, Va., has been picked for a screen test for Mr. Hughes, labeled “The King of Hollywood” even though this is 1958 and his last mark on the movies was made a dozen years before.
“Stella Starlight” is the supposed name of the movie Marla is up for. But as she’s driven to ballet classes, acting classes and the like by Frank, she realizes the mysterious Mr. Hughes has filled dozens of houses with young women (Haley Bennett among them) just like her.
And as the days turn to weeks, Marla (Lily Collins) doesn’t meet Hughes, doesn’t get her screen test. Her mother (Annette Bening) loses patience. And Marla finds herself making an awful lot of eye contact with Frank, which is “against the rules.” Hughes hires religious, mostly-married drivers to control his starlets. They’re not allowed to fraternize, date or seduce the young women, as veteran driver Levar (Matthew Broderick) keeps reminding Frank.
When we finally meet Hughes, the first impression is hardly impressive. Handsome? Sure. Aged? Quite. He’s also quite deaf and perfectly daft, a shy man who treats Marla to a TV dinner.
Half-known to Frank and Marla, the increasingly reclusive Hughes is fighting for his fortune and freedom against TWA airline investors, bankers and the government. Every crisis of his public life — a plane crash, the Spruce Goose, Congressional testimony, drug addiction, threats of consignment to a mental hospital and an urgent need to marry — is packed into a whirlwind year or so of his life.
Collins makes a perky church girl — “Blessed Savior!” is her favorite expletive — whom Hollywood and Hughes will corrupt. Frank is meant to be Marla’s knight in shining armor, whom she might betray once she’s seen the bright lights of the Big City.
But the young couple set off no sparks, and the older pairing — ancient lech and virginal daisy — is just creepy. Nobody makes us feel anything in this burlesque of history and botch-job of a romance.
Broderick plays a 50ish bounder who wouldn’t mind bedding Marla himself. and cameos by everyone from Alec Baldwin and Steve Coogan to Candice Bergen (more than a cameo, she’s Hughes’ secretary) and Ed Harris remind us that Beatty still commands an audience, at least among his AARP peers.
Beatty plays the guy very close to himself — rambling, incomplete thoughts, stammered out bits of brilliance and wit wrapped in layers of dizziness. Madness manifests itself in the paranoia of a man who has bugged hotel rooms and insulates himself from the world with legions of do-my-bidding assistants. He repeats himself repeatedly — in memos, and memorably, in his threat to clear his name in front of Congress or go into exile.
“I’d leave this country, and never come back. I’d leave this country, and never come back. I’d LEAVE this country, and NEVER come back. I’d leave this country and never COME BACK.”
There are shades of “Shampoo” and “Heaven Can Wait” and even “Bulworth” in the performance. They just don’t add up to much more than a goofy sketch, a caricature.
The dialogue is light, but rarely quotable, largely due to Beatty’s disjointed line-readings.
And the picture fits together so clumsily that no satisfactory tone emerges, relationships don’t gel and the story loses any sense of “arc.” Sure, “Rules Don’t Apply” to this movie, but all we’re left with is the odd warm and wonderful scene.
Marla has waited so long to meet the man that she blurts out her thanks, her dreams, her suggestions and her pleas for advice in a single breathless minute-and-a-half long sentence. Hughes, probably not wearing his hearing aid, devours his TV dinner peas — oblivious — until he starts rambling about TV dinners in the middle of her frantic monologue.
Marla sings a song, “Rules Don’t Apply,” of her own invention — charming first Frank and later Hughes with her voice, her innocence and her first-time-ever drunkenness.
Frank finally meets his boss, shows off his own business savvy and tries to keep the perpetually -Hughes focused long enough to hear his real estate investment pitch as they eat late night hamburgers on a dock where the Spruce Goose, Hughes’ massive wooden transport seaplane, is parked.
The general incoherence cripples the film, but those random scenes give it enough sparkle to make it worth enduring. But worth remembering?
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements, and drug references
Cast: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Steve Coogan, Oliver Platt, Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan
Credits:Directed by Warren Beatty, script by Warren Beatty and Bo Goldman. A 20th Century Fox release.
Running time: 2:06