In a season filled with heart-wrenching, disturbing, and depressing films (many of them excellent, mind you), Rules Don’t Apply is a fun and welcome escape. Yes, it has flaws—some choppy editing, a romance we wished we cared a little more about, etc.—but it’s still an entertaining retro romp about Old Hollywood starring, written, and directed by an actual icon of Old-ish Hollywood, Warren Beatty. In fact, this is his first film in 15 years.
“This is not a biopic,” the ever-charming Beatty told the small audience at an early screening of the film, which opens Nov. 23. “It’s not a biopic on Howard Hughes. It’s about two young kids who work for him.”
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But since Beatty portrays Hughes, of course, it is about the eccentric billionaire and his myriad quirky habits: an insatiable taste for banana nut ice cream, an obsession with airplanes and bras, a distaste for small children, a penchant for TV dinners, and a preference for darkened rooms and curtained beds. Beatty plays the mythic recluse as pure narcissism (“Billlionaire, god damn it, not millionaire,” he corrects), combined with extreme insecurity (“You think I’m nuts, right?”). He’s as cocky and unsure as a rookie pitcher on opening day, with a dash of bumbling old grandpa thrown in.
Sure, there is also a sweet love story here between one of Hughes’s young chauffeurs, Frank Forbes (played by new, young heartthrob Alden Ehrenreich) and one of his contract starlets, Marla Mabrey (played by Lily Collins). These are the two “kids” Hughes had been referring to—and they are both very appealing.
When Marla bemoans what she feels is her flaw, telling Frank, “A movie actress should have big bosoms and be sexy. In this town, aren’t those the rules?” He replies, “You’re an exception. The rules don’t apply to you.”
But it’s Beatty as Hughes who really keeps our attention. The fact that the mogul doesn’t appear for the first several minutes of the film may have been meant to establish that it's not about him, but it does just the opposite as it builds the anticipation for his reveal. Remember Jaws?
Here’s the storyline: It’s 1958 and Marla is an eager young a starlet from Virginia, sent to Hollywood at the behest of Hughes for a screen test with RKO Pictures. She and her skeptical, Baptist mother (Annette Bening, fantastic as always) are put up in a house in the Hollywood Hills, but after days of failing to meet Hughes and no screen test on the horizon, Marla is flummoxed to discover she is simply one of 26 girls (including those played by Haley Bennett and Megan Hilty) that Hughes is treating the same way. Meanwhile, she’s become smitten with her assigned chauffeur, Frank, who is also waiting to meet Hughes (to sell him on a real estate idea) and is equally smitten with her despite the fact that they’ve been warned of the strict “no hanky panky” between employees rule.
There’s a lot of repressed sexuality here, but whether out of boredom or actual chemistry, the two eventually have a bumbling encounter after which the chaste Marla feels guilty since Frank is engaged. “I behaved like a cheap floozy!” she decries. When Marla finally meets Hughes at his darkened Beverly Hills hotel bungalow (he had asked for the “M.M. girl”—Marilyn Monroe—but was sent Marla by mistake), she gets tipsy on Champagne and declares, “If what you are is crazy, then give me more crazy!” Charmed, Hughes ends up giving her a ring.
Marla’s ambitions trump her romance with Frank but she soon finds out that Hughes has forgotten their encounter and gotten engaged to someone else—all part of a hairbrained scheme to hang onto the airline company TWA, a subplot with Hughes becoming increasingly more unhinged and paranoid.
Confused yet? I won’t give away the ending, but I will add that the film benefits from a strong cast of supporting characters including Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen, Steve Coogan (in a scene-stealing cameo as a pilot), Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Oliver Platt, and more. When you have to find a film to see over Thanksgiving weekend that appeals to your mom, dad, grandma, and your teenage niece, this is a good bet.