Warren Beatty doesn't want us to regard "Rules Don't Apply," in which he stars as Howard Hughes, as a Howard Hughes film. It's actually a movie about late '50s Hollywood, he says, and the sexual puritanism of the era.
Indeed, Beatty doesn't appear for a long while in this much-awaited film, which he co-wrote, directed and starred in — perhaps partly to prove his point that he's not the main attraction. But come on — it's Warren Beatty, a legend who hasn't made a film for 15 years, playing America's most famous eccentric, controversial billionaire until ... well, until you know who. Of COURSE it's a Howard Hughes movie.
And that's not a bad thing, because whatever you think of the new film, Beatty at 79 retains much of that youthful charisma — he may have wrinkles, but the features are still boyish — that's made him a Hollywood fixture for more than a half-century, from "Splendor in the Grass" to "Bonnie and Clyde" to "Shampoo" to "Heaven Can Wait" to "Reds."
As for "Rules Don't Apply," it's many years — decades, actually — in the making, brings together a who's who list of on-and-offscreen talent, looks gorgeous — and still feels strangely uneven and tonally confusing. But if you can get over that, it's undeniably entertaining and at times, even quirkily mesmerizing.
It's Hollywood in 1958 — just three years before Beatty himself made his mark — and aspiring starlets are descending on the town, among them fresh-faced Baptist beauty queen Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins, a gorgeous Natalie Wood lookalike). She's been invited by the reclusive Hughes to audition for his RKO Pictures.
Once there, she realizes she's just one of many aspiring starlets Hughes has brought in on contract. But when her mother (the always-superb Annette Bening, being directed by her husband for the first time) gets the willies and suggests they leave, Marla insists on staying.
Marla's handsome driver is aspiring real-estate developer Frank Forbes (the appealingly earnest Alden Ehrenreich, soon to be the next Han Solo). When Marla complains she hasn't yet met Hughes, Frank admits he hasn't met their employer, either.
Suddenly, Marla's ushered into a darkened hotel bungalow and served a TV dinner in tinfoil. Hughes appears, befuddled and amusing. He asks her name, plays some saxophone, barks into the phone to his subordinates. These include Matthew Broderick (having lots of fun as Hughes' chief driver, especially in a laugh-out-loud scene with his boss toward the end), Candice Bergen as a personal assistant, and Martin Sheen as Hughes' CEO.
The plot — often in short, choppy scenes unfolding pell-mell — careens like a pinball between Marla, Frank and Hughes. The young couple has obvious chemistry. There's a catch, though. Frank, a Methodist and a virgin like Marla, is engaged to his hometown sweetheart. And Hughes, despite his own sexual dalliances, has declared that drivers hitting on actresses will be fired.
The Marla-Frank plotline competes with Hughes' increasingly erratic episodes — taking the cockpit for a terrifying ride while singing at the top of his lungs, or ordering truckfuls of Baskin-Robbins' Banana Nut ice cream, and then declaring: "No More Banana NUT! I want French Vanilla!"
And mostly, the Frank-Marla courtship has the pizazz of, well, vanilla ice cream. The Hughes storyline? More banana nut — emphasis on nut. Which would you rather watch?
Beautiful to look at, never less than engaging, sometimes inspired and sometimes just odd, the film shifts uneasily in tone. Yet it's distinctly watchable, even when perplexing us.
Is this Beatty's final big film? At this rate he'll be in his 90s for the next one. (And still look boyish.) All the more reason to appreciate this, foibles aside. Perhaps for a man with the pedigree and charisma of Warren Beatty, the rules really don't apply — and that's OK.
"Rules Don't Apply," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America "for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements, and drug references." Running time: 126 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.