When last we saw Howard Hughes onscreen, Leonardo DiCaprio was repeating "the way of the future" ad infinitum as he gazed into the mirror. Warren Beatty's long-in-the-making Rules Don't Apply isn't nearly as concerned with the future as Martin Scorsese's The Aviator was, looking instead to the past and all its comforts while treating the darker chapters of Hughes' life with too light a touch.
Beatty -- who wrote, produced, directed and stars -- finds his billionaire subject in the mid-'60s, by which time his well-earned reputation as an eccentric not only precedes but defines him. Movie magic has always superseded truth, and Beatty is enamored of Old Hollywood. Here he seeks to re-create its magic -- would that it were so simple. Alden Ehrenreich plays Hughes' new-in-town driver, who's tasked with ferrying around the even-newer-in-town Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a contract actress who spends her first several weeks in Tinseltown wondering when (or even if) she'll meet the eccentric mogul and have her screen test. Marla is virginal and devout, which is to say she's exactly the sort of delicate flower that wilts when exposed to the harsh light and smog of L.A.
Beatty plays Hughes' neuroses mostly for laughs, an occasionally pat characterization in keeping with the film's aw-shucks nostalgia but at odds with how the mogul actually treats his underlings. Sure, everything we're watching this man do represents another step toward debilitating mental illness, but hey, look: He just ordered 350 tons of banana-nut ice cream! Beatty reserves his most heartfelt moments for the end, when a few moments of clarity cut through the haze, but by then his Hughes is too far gone.