Warren Beatty plays Howard Hughes for laughs in Rules Don’t Apply

B+ Romantic comedy
Written and directed by Warren Beatty
Story by Beatty and Bo Goldman

Don’t be fooled by the posters. Rules Don’t Apply isn’t a thriller. It’s a romantic comedy.

Warren Beatty returns to the director’s chair for the first time this century, wringing laughs out of billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. (He also returns to the producer and writer chairs.) Pushing 80, Beatty wisely let a much younger man, Alden Ehrenreich, do the chore of falling in love.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll miss Beatty’s on-screen presence in Rules Don’t Apply. While Ehrenreich and Lily Collins carry the love story, Beatty gets most of the laughs as the aging Hughes. Demanding and oblivious, his eccentricities drive his employees crazy.

The film is set in in 1950s and early 1960s, with digitally-enhanced old footage to place us in the time. The movie tells us right up front that it’s more myth than history.

The young lovers, for instance, are entirely fictitious characters. Collins plays a would-be movie star who comes to Hollywood on Hughes’ dime; she’s been promised a screen test. (Hughes ran RKO–very badly–at that point in the time.) Ehrenreich plays a Hughes employee whose jobs include chauffeuring this young would-be actress.

Neither of them are typical Hollywood folk. Both are small-town religious Christians, with little or no experience with sex or alcohol. As they spend time together, they build a friendship that turns slowly but inevitably in the direction of romance. But that’s not going to be easy. He’s already engaged, and their contracts with Hughes explicitly ban sexual or romantic entanglements with other company employees.

Their doubly-forbidden love and shared discomfort with tinsel town’s free ways provide warm, human-level comedy. Beatty’s performance as Hughes produce the broader laughs. He dines with an actress on frozen dinners. He hates kids and watches old movies constantly. He still loves to fly airplanes, but his passengers don’t enjoy the experience.

It seems as if everyone in Hollywood wanted to be in Beatty’s new movie. Paul Sorvino, Candice Bergen, Ed Harris, and others turn up in small, thankless roles that fail to show off their talents. On the other hand, Oliver Platt manages a very funny turn as a frustrated banker. Beatty’s wife, Annette Bening, plays the ingénue’s watchful but supportive mother.

Rules Don’t Apply lacks the political punch of such Beatty-created films as Reds and Bulworth, although it finds some fun with puritan ethics and the extremes of capitalism. But overall, it’s just well-made escapist entertainment. And that’s not something to look down on.

I saw Rules Don’t Apply at a special screening at the Castro, presented by the San Francisco Film Society. After the film, Director or Programming Rachel Rosen conducted a Q&A session with Beatty and Collins.

Beatty proved to be a witty, amiable, and fun interview subject–keeping the audience laughing through most of the session. Collins was also funny, but Beatty did most of the talking (after all, he wrote, produced, and directed the movie).

Here are a few highlights, edited for length and clarity:

  • Beatty on his career: You know you’ve got the right job if you don’t know if you’re working or playing.
  • On directing a movie for the first time in 18 years: Making a movie is like vomiting…I thought I’d just go ahead and throw up.
  • On casting Collins and Ehrenreich: I thought they had the intelligence and wit. They are not ugly. But I don’t want to diminish the guy who played Howard Hughes.
  • On Hughes: He stood for a level of power and capital in that time. I never met him. I like to say I’ve met everyone who met him. Everything we do in this movie about Hughes was based on something I was told.
  • On how the screenplay came together: I don’t know. Things happen. And you go back and forth and back and forth. and then you cast.
  • On Hughes: Everybody thought he was a nice guy.

Rules Don’t Apply opens Wednesday.