When last we saw Howard Hughes onscreen, Leonardo DiCaprio was repeating "the way of the future" ad infinitum as he gazed into the mirror. Warren Beatty's long-in-the-making Rules Don't Apply isn't nearly as concerned with the future as Martin Scorsese's The Aviator was, looking instead to the past and all its comforts while treating the darker chapters of Hughes' life with too light a touch.
Beatty — who wrote, produced, directed, and stars — finds his billionaire subject in the mid-'60s, by which time his well-earned reputation as an eccentric not only precedes but defines him. "Never check an interesting fact" is the epigraph that opens Rules Don't Apply, and the film's lighthearted tone is very much in keeping with that directive — much of what follows may be apocryphal.
Movie magic has always superseded truth, and Beatty is enamored of Old Hollywood. Here he seeks to re-create its magic — would that it were so simple. Alden Ehrenreich plays Hughes' new-in-town driver, who’s tasked with ferrying around the even-newer-in-town Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a contract actress who spends her first several weeks in Tinseltown wondering when (or even if) she'll meet the eccentric mogul and have her screen test. Marla is virginal and devout, which is to say she's exactly the sort of delicate flower that wilts when exposed to the harsh light and smog of L.A.
Beatty plays Hughes' neuroses mostly for laughs, an occasionally pat characterization in keeping with the film's aw-shucks nostalgia but at odds with how the mogul actually treats his underlings. Everyone around the aviator/producer is subject to his whims and compulsions, a dynamic that makes them both enablers and victims; he smiles through it all, while they — and, eventually, us — are forced to grin and bear it. Sure, everything we're watching this man do represents another step toward debilitating mental illness, but hey, look: He just ordered 350 tons of banana-nut ice cream!
Beatty is, of course, largely responsible for making Bonnie and Clyde more than just a glimmer in New Hollywood's eye, and for that and many other accomplishments (like his best director Oscar for Reds) the multihyphenate has long been Hollywood royalty. Rules Don't Apply reads as the movie monarch surveying his kingdom with the fondness of a benevolent dictator — just one who's loath to admit that not everyone in his dominion is glad to be there. That some of his subjects are would-be starlets who get rejected by that system before they've had their fair shake is ultimately an afterthought — the movie's got a love triangle to get to, damnit, and it's not gonna complicate itself.
Ehrenreich also featured in the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar!, a much more biting look at Hollywood as it used to be, playing an airhead of an actor who falls upward into stardom. His role here, which precedes his turn as a young Han Solo in that Star Wars spinoff they won't stop talking about, almost feels like a passing of the torch from Beatty. Ehrenreich has an understated determination about him, the kind that makes you believe his character when he says he's destined for greater things.
Rules Don't Apply spans roughly half a decade, during which time Hughes' shut-in infamy grows alongside his dependence on codeine. Beatty reserves his most heartfelt moments for the end, when a few moments of clarity cut through the haze, but by then he's too far gone. There's a gulf between Hughes as we know him and Hughes as Beatty portrays him, and once you get past the sugarcoating, the rest of this film is more bitter than sweet. You can celebrate what's passed, but not even the movies are powerful enough to bring it back for real.