Warren Beatty’s ‘Rules Don’t Apply’ is strong but never really soars

Warren Beatty directs and acts in “Rules Don’t Apply.”
Warren Beatty directs and acts in “Rules Don’t Apply.” 20th Century Fox

It’s possible to be blinded by passion. That’s exactly what happened with Warren Beatty as he finally got his Howard Hughes project made with “Rules Don’t Apply.” Just like the Spruce Goose, the Beatty film is beautiful when it lifts off, but it fails to soar.

It’s been 18 years since Beatty directed. Before he stopped, he was behind films like “Heaven Can Wait,” “Reds,” “Dick Tracy” and “Bulworth.” Each featured very distinct looks and viewpoints on life. Even before he directed those productions, Beatty wanted to make a project based on the bizarre life of Hughes.

He gets his chance to fulfill that dream with his return to Hollywood as the writer, director and star of “Rules Don’t Apply.” Told generally in a giant flashback, Hughes finds himself in the early ’60s embroiled in a battle to maintain control of TWA while trying to get his movie production wing going.

Hughes has placed potential starlets in 27 bungalows in Los Angeles. He doesn’t allow the beautiful women to have a car because he wants to control their movements. Drivers are on his payroll to take them around town.

Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) arrives with her protective mother (Annette Bening) and is assigned Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a young entrepreneur from Fresno, as her driver. What starts as a professional relationship soon grows into a deep friendship.

The reclusive billionaire lives in a paranoid bubble that keeps most people away. That bubble eventually goes away and Mabrey and Forbes get their chance to get to know Hughes.

The film is designed to spotlight Beatty’s performance as the quirky genius. It’s a good try, but the real stories about Hughes paint him as such a strange creature that any attempt to play that kind of lunacy can stumble into parody. Most of Beatty’s performance is good. But the cautious approach never gives Hughes the freak-show quality he needs to attract a crowd. Part of the problem may come from Beatty serving also as the director and writer. He needed another voice to tell him when the project was working.

A bigger success comes from Collins and Ehrenreich. She brings a bubbly demeanor to the role that’s somewhere between Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn. Collins’ character has a kind heart, but she is also spunky enough to speak her mind when she finally meets Hughes.

Her best scenes are with Ehrenreich, who is becoming one of Hollywood’s more charming leading men. He knows how to play a moment with the right amount of passion, humor or pathos. There’s never any doubt that while he’s OK with making a living as a diver, his ambitions are much grander.

The film is loaded with strong actors playing small roles, such as Martin Sheen, Bening and Oliver Platt. It’s sad they don’t have more to do.

“Rules Don’t Apply” has a lot of good moments. It would have soared higher had Beatty separated himself from the project and taken a more critical look at his work rather than relying on his heart. It also might be that Beatty’s a little rusty after such a long break. When it comes to making movies, there are times when rules do apply so Beatty shouldn’t wait nearly as long before directing again.

Rick Bentley: 559-441-6355, @RickBentley1

Rules Don’t Apply

Movie review

Cast: Warren Beatty, Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Annette Bening

Director: Warren Beatty

152 minutes

Rating: PG-13 (sexuality, language, drug use)

Opens: Wednesday

Check movie times at calendar.fresnobee.com/movies.aspx