Hollywood icon, legendary lothario, reclusive man of mystery: It’s not hard to imagine what drew Warren Beatty to Howard Hughes. Aside from the obvious traits the two men share, the late tycoon’s wild life (Sex! Money! Madness! Mustaches!) is the stuff biopic dreams are made of — one alluring enough to become a passion project nearly four decades in the making, and pull Beatty out of de facto retirement for the first time in 15 years.
Except it turns out that Rules Don’t Apply is hardly about Hughes at all. Instead, it’s a small-scale, lovingly filmed study of the blossoming romance between two fictional show-business newbies: aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and her assigned driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich). Virginal Virginia Baptist Marla has been lured to 1958 Los Angeles with the promise of a contract (Hughes famously maintained a stable of pretty young starlets on his payroll; most of them never got near a movie set). Frank, an ambitious Fresno kid with a fiancée back home and mogul aspirations of his own, is just hoping the chauffeur job will get him close enough to Hughes to pitch his big ideas. Together they both have no choice but to sit and wait for a word from their elusive boss — and, because fraternizing with the “talent” is strictly forbidden, fight the inevitable attraction between them.
When they — along with the audience — finally do meet the man behind the curtain, he’s both more and less than the fearsome figure we’ve imagined. For a fuller portrait of Hughes’ glory days and descent into mental illness, you’ll have to look to Martin Scorsese’s lush 2004 epic, The Aviator; here he’s already adrift, an addled agoraphobe more fixated on banana-nut ice cream and his beloved daddy’s legacy than the daily running of his billion-dollar empire. Maybe that’s why Beatty ultimately sidelines his subject, and his own starring role, for such a sweetly forgettable trifle of a love story. B