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Warren Beatty channels Howard Hughes in the uneven ‘Rules Don’t Apply’

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Beatty as Hughes.

Two stars

Rules Don’t Apply Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Warren Beatty. Directed by Warren Beatty. Rated PG-13. Now playing citywide.

Warren Beatty spent 40-plus years, on and off, trying to make a movie about Howard Hughes, and the eventual result in Rules Don’t Apply feels like a burst of pent-up ideas that never come together, with scenes and characters that are obvious fragments of larger whole that was either cut down or never fully brought to life. Beatty, who wrote and directed, plays Hughes, but the reclusive, eccentric billionaire isn’t really the movie’s main character, especially during its stronger first half. Instead, Rules focuses on two fictional characters who come into Hughes’ orbit during the early 1960s, as his behavior is becoming increasingly erratic and unsettling.

Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is an aspiring real estate developer working as a driver for Hughes’ organization in the hopes of pitching the boss on an idea for low-income housing. He serves as a chauffeur for Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), one of Hughes’ many “discoveries” who get all-expenses-paid accommodations in LA even though they may never actually appear in a Hughes-produced movie. The first half or so of Rules follows Frank and Marla as they grow closer, despite the express rule against drivers and actresses engaging in extracurricular activities. As a sweet romance set in the shadows of classic Hollywood grandeur (with some nice use of period footage as establishing shots), Rules has a certain charm, and Hughes works best as a sort of mysterious figure who dictates everything in these characters’ lives but is almost never seen (he doesn’t show up until nearly a half-hour into the movie).

But then the story shifts, as both Frank and Marla become more closely involved with Hughes, and Beatty’s hammy performance takes over the movie. Unlike Martin Scorsese’s epic The Aviator (which covered Hughes’ younger years), Rules treats Hughes as a comedic figure, whose unreasonable demands and mental lapses are the sources of jokes. Beatty, in his first onscreen performance in 15 years, overwhelms everyone else in the movie, and although Ehrenreich and Collins give solid and occasionally affecting performances, they’re quickly overshadowed by their director.

Beatty’s screenwriting and direction is nearly as jumbled as his performance; scenes often cut before they appear to have ended, and famous faces show up in tiny parts to deliver one or two lines, leaving whole characters apparently on the cutting-room floor. The tone lurches from goofy comedy to swooning romance to dark drama, sometimes within the same scene. It’s clear that Beatty is fascinated with Hughes, but the movie makes it tough to figure out what exactly the filmmaker wanted to say about this larger-than-life figure. The characters repeat the title phrase an absurd amount of times, but this mess of a film suggests that applying a few more rules might have helped.

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