Rules Don’t Apply: Beatty leads Howard Hughes fiction

Nostalgia is a pretty powerful thing in modern moviemaking.

More than ever, films try to remind us about the good old days of cinema, whether it’s CGI sharks terrorizing Blake Lively in the “Jaws” homage “The Shallows” or any one of a dozen Disney live-action remakes of classic cartoon movies or even “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” which turns into a carbon copy of “Star Wars: A New Hope.”

Writer/director/star Warren Beatty attempts to remind us of another style of classic cinema, Marilyn Monroe-era dramedy, with his new film “Rules Don’t Apply.” 

Beatty crams himself right in the heart of the film, playing aging billionaire Howard Hughes as he mingles with naïve starlets looking for a shot on the big screen in one of his pictures and navigates business deals while suffering from depression and paranoia. Much of viewers’ understanding of Hughes is seen through the eyes of Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a businessman hoping to get in the door with Hughes by serving as a driver for one of the 12-20 starlets in Hughes’ employ. Romance plays a part in “Rules Don’t Apply” with Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a devout Baptist torn between her beliefs, attraction to Forbes and loyalty to a benefactor she’s never met.

What plays out on screen is a largely entertaining, often puzzling dramedy that doesn’t have the impact that Beatty might like or that a character like Howard Hughes ultimately deserves. It can’t help that Martin Scorcese’s Oscar winning drama “The Aviator” set the bar on Hughes films ridiculously high, but even by lesser standards, “Rules Don’t Apply” is middling fare and more on par with the Coen Brothers’ average Hollywood comedy “Hail, Caesar” from earlier this year.

Beatty’s turn as Hughes is quirky and eccentric, like one might expect Hughes to be, but Beatty finds slight moments of cognitive thinking and understanding to show there’s still some part of the successful businessman hiding under the surface. There’s definitely homage to Tom Wilkinson’s brand of crazy businessman from the vastly superior “Michael Clayton,” but Beatty holds his own enough to dominate any scene he’s in to the film’s credit or detriment depending on the moment.

Ehrenreich continues to pad his acting resume with a solid, unspectacular performance as Forbes though he occasionally shows enough of his star caliber to remind viewers why he’s in line to play a young Han Solo in the next “Star Wars” spinoff film slated for 2018. “Rules Don’t Apply” puts audiences in Frank’s shoes for much of the way in order to immerse ourselves in the world around Frank. As a result, Ehrenreich mostly tries to get out of his own way and remain just present enough in scenes to keep the action moving while not hitting any major marks of his own.

The true star of “Rules Don’t Apply” is Collins, who will hopefully receive more dramatic opportunities outside the young adult film genre to sparkle. Her ability to play smart and naïve simultaneously in both romantic and non-romantic settings within the film is remarkable and Collins more than holds her own in scenes opposite Beatty, who does everything he possibly can to upstage her. This feels like a career-defining role for Collins if enough commercial and critical support can boost her up to the next level.

“Rules Don’t Apply” also benefits from a deep and talented supporting cast in a variety of extended cameo roles, whether it be Alec Baldwin as an executive for Hughes’s company, Annette Bening as Mabrey’s prim and proper mother or Martin Sheen as the oustered CEO of the Hughes empire. Matthew Broderick does yeoman’s work as the more experienced driver mentoring Forbes through the business and Candice Bergen is solid opposite Collins and Beatty as Hughes’ personal secretary.

Ultimately, Beatty’s first major film project in more than 15 years is a welcome return to the screen, though “Rules Don’t Apply” can’t totally hold together over the two hour stretch.  Talk of Academy Award consideration for Beatty as Hughes feels more like a legacy nomination than for actual merit.

For Beatty fans, “Rules Don’t Apply” is worth a look whether it be at the theaters or in its inevitable run on basic cable.

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