There’s no comic form more treacherous than farce. Characters compete to get whatever they desperately want. Different needs clash, obstacles prevent them from making their connections, or they just get confused. People cross paths in improbable sexual pairings and trouser-dropping recombinations. Incompetents do ridiculous things, disguise themselves in outlandish dress, rant and rave when they can’t have their way.
In Warren Beatty’s excellent Howard Hughes fantasia “Rules Don’t Apply,” that absurdist disorder hits stratospheric heights. The remarkably erratic billionaire/Lothario/aerospace adventurer/movie czar has been a fascination of Beatty’s for 40 years. Here he turns the eccentric maverick into a spontaneous firecracker who is unwilling to take advice but unable to steer himself.
As the director, writer, star and producer, the Oscar-winning filmmaker has crafted a genuinely hilarious romp, creating at age 79 a work as fun to watch as the last film he directed, 1998’s “Bulworth.” With its multiple layers of storytelling and editing paced at Mach 4 speed, his latest takes away all the thinking time, not only from the characters but also from the audience.
Set in 1959, the movie tells the story of a unique three-way relationship. Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), Alabama’s “Apple Blossom Queen,” is hand-picked to be a contract player for Hughes’ RKO Pictures by the great man himself, joining dozens of bosomy actresses he keeps well housed in Hollywood and generously paid as they wait for something, anything, to launch their promised careers. Marla is every bit the virginal ingénue she appears. Her chauffeur Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, the new Han Solo) has dreams of his own involving Los Angeles real estate that he hopes Hughes might invest in.
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Frank shares Marla’s deep religious faith, and the sense that they’d be a good match together — perhaps right at this very moment in her hillside villa overlooking the Hollywood Bowl, if the chaste sexual mores of the time weren’t so restrictive and the Hughes staff members weren’t forbidden to fraternize. Instead, they commute to the studio together, get big platonic crushes on each other and remain as pure as snowflakes. Their other shared fascination is their employer, a legend who enslaves our attention long before we see him, 25 minutes into the movie.
It’s hard not to see a degree of typecasting in Beatty giving himself the role. The parallels are obvious: reclusive national celebrities, Hollywood VIPs, perfectionist craftsmen and notorious tomcats. Perhaps that’s why Beatty’s performance is such a sly mix of parody and empathy. He makes Hughes generally sad in a very funny way. He throws confusing chitchat to his errand boys and trophy starlets, rattling on about the stock potential of a company that has just invented a birth control pill or the cross-generational immortality delivered by reproductive DNA. These throwaway lines become central plot points when the illicit fooling around occurs in remarkably unlikely, and funny, ways.
The precisely calibrated chaos of Beatty’s film begins with a slow burn as a captivating romance, follows mounting momentum into delirious lunacy and ends with a touch of existential sadness. The acting is superb. Ehrenreich’s Frank is disoriented by his eccentric leader, pressing his lips in a respectful smile but trying to read him with bewildered eyes. As Marla, Collins’ goody-two-shoes disapproval of Hughes’ isolation softens to tender bemusement when they meet alone over her very first drink, an entire bottle of Champagne. Beatty’s Hughes remains a magnetic eccentric, obsessively watching clips of biplanes dogfighting, crash landing or colliding in the one film he directed, 1930’s air war epic “Hell’s Angels,” at the time the most expensive movie ever made.
The cast is peppered with superb performers in cameos. Oliver Platt is particularly wonderful as a businessman trying to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the evasive Hughes, whose slippery talk drives him apoplectic to the point of dial phone homicide. Matthew Broderick is outstanding as a milquetoast on the driving staff, and Annette Bening offers a three-dimensional turn as Marla’s puritan mother.
Beatty has delivered one of the trickiest and best projects of this already rich film season, the rare delightful movie where the laughter was controlling me, rather than the other way around. Don’t miss it. I hope it finds the broad audience and respect it deserves.
starring Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Haley Bennett, Taissa Farmiga, Matthew Broderick, Warren Beatty, Annette Bening and Martin Sheen. Rating: PG-13 for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements and drug references.