Rules Don’t Apply review: Warren Beatty’s flat-footed tribute to Howard Hughes

Beatty’s off-kilter take on Hollywood’s famous recluse leans towards screwball, but never actually gets there

Rules Don't Apply
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Director: Warren Beatty
Cert: 12A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick
Running Time: 2 hrs 6 mins

Warren Beatty is, one supposes, going more for the sub-factual cheek of Melvin and Howard than the pseudo-historical sweep of The Aviator in this peculiar project hung around the mental decline of Howard Hughes.

Beatty's decision to repeatedly layer bits of Mahler's Fifth symphony – the same bits used in Death in Venice – over the last hour suggests inclinations towards grand tragedy. But much of the film plays as an attempt at high farce. This sort of unevenness often results when "long-cherished" film projects come to fruition.

Lily Collins plays Marla Mabrey, the latest young starlet propelled towards compromise when summoned to LA from the rose-covered inlands. Mabrey has secured a contract with Hughes that, though lucrative, seems unlikely to lead towards any time on screen. Hughes buys such stars the way he buys hotels or expensive aeroplanes.

On her first day, an equally innocent young Methodist named Frank Forbes (Aldo Ehrenreich) turns up to drive her about the city. They buzz with optimism. She fancies herself as a songwriter. He intends to become a property magnate. But Hughes’s increasing eccentricity proves a barrier to their ambitions.


Beatty turns up as the great recluse towards the end of the first act. The actor is old enough to remember Hollywood in its artificially chaste 1950s and, like Hughes, has lived for decades in a mire of gossip. Our knowledge of those connections lend some weight to an otherwise inhibited performance. One senses that Beatty is straining to break out and have some inappropriate fun with the part. But decorum restrains too much of his turn.

The film’s greatest problem is its inability to manage its comic potential. Much of the interaction between the three principals seems to be leaning towards screwball. People hide in cupboards. Sexual trysts are interrupted.

But the energy is never at a sufficient level to get the laughs churning. The actors are certainly up to it. Ehrenreich stole the Coens' Hail, Caesar!, Beatty knew what to do in Shampoo. But the timing is always a little off.

Whinges noted, Rules Don't Apply remains a diverting oddity. Caleb Deschanel's photography soaks up the sun-blasted Hollywood streets and finds forbidding shadows in Hughes's various lairs. And Beatty's breadth of friendships ensures that welcome celebrities people every corner of every scene. Worth indulging.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist