Why Warren Beatty's latest is better than it looks

Rules Don’t Apply

Directed by Warren Beatty

Written by Warren Beatty and Bo Goldman

Rated M, 127 minutes

4 stars

Warren Beatty begins this pageant of Hollywood life in the 1960’s with a quote from Howard Hughes, whom he plays with just the right amount of crazy: never check an interesting fact. I don’t know if Hughes ever said it, because I haven’t checked it (boom tish).

It works as both a warning and a statement of creed. What you are about to see might have happened but who cares: almost anything one could say about the real Howard Hughes is weirder than what Beatty could make up anyway.

The advance reviews on Rules Don’t Apply were harsh, to say the least, and it may be that standards are higher for Beatty, who has refused to fade into the Hollywood hills, even as he passed 80 earlier this year. Apart from his huge body of work as an actor, his reputation as a director peaked in 1982 with Reds, for which he won the Oscar for best director, then faded. Bulworth and Dick Tracy were fun, but the market for Beatty’s satire seemed to have passed.

He claims to have been thinking about this new film since the 1960’s, when he was the biggest hunk in Hollywood, and Hughes was still a force in American business. It’s certainly true that Rules Don’t Apply is not so much a film about Hughes the movie producer and aviator as it is about the battle between sex and puritanism in American life. Some critics have missed the point: it’s not that Beatty identifies with Hughes. He identifies with the beautiful young things arriving in Tinseltown in 1958, which is when he too arrived from Virginia with his sister Shirley Maclaine.

Frank Forbes (the fast-rising Alden Ehrenreich) has left small-town America and his high school sweetheart to pursue real estate ambitions in Los Angeles. He starts work as a driver for Mr Hughes, thinking he will get him to invest, although he has never actually met him. Levar Mathis (Matthew Broderick), as a cynical senior driver, explains the strict rules for ferrying one of the 30 or so young starlets Hughes has under contract. Candice Bergen, as Nadine Henly, runs the female part of the Hughes empire. The newest girl is Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) who arrives with her suspicious and god-fearing mother Lucy (Annette Bening). Frank deposits them in a lovely house in the hills above the Hollywood Bowl, where classical music wafts up at night.

In one sense, the film is an elaborate romantic tease about when the rosy-cheeked and wide-eyed Marla will finally succumb to either Hughes or Frank, or both. In another, it’s a sad love story about an old man losing his grip on reality, while these young things lose their innocence. It’s effective as both – far more than I expected. The comedy has bite, the writing captures the weird, and Beatty directs with care.

He gives us a richly satirical portrait of American double standards. Hollywood is in one sense more honest than the apple pie heartland that produced these two beautiful things, raised on the Bible but bursting with sexual energy. At least in Hollywood, they understand the attraction of sin.

As a lifelong liberal and libertarian, the religious right was never going to get much shrift from Beatty, who keeps denying the obvious truth that this is a thoroughly political movie. It may not mention the current president, but it’s impossible to watch without thinking of his attitudes to women. At least Howard Hughes, as played by Beatty, is a gentleman. Not that Beatty wants us to take his portrayal literally: he never met the man, and Hughes had sold RKO Studios three years before Beatty arrived in the movie capital. Never check a fake fact either.