A young, ambitious man (Alden Ehrenreich) is recruited to work as a driver for eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) and transport a beautiful actress / singer (Lily Collins) to and from rehearsals, striking up a forbidden relationship in the process with her.
Warren Beatty's career has been marked by bold steps in different directions. The excellent biopic Reds came to cinemas at the height of the Cold War, whilst Bulworth stirred up controversy on its release and continues to be referenced to this day. Considering that was the last film Beatty directed, taking on a film about Howard Hughes' later years seems like a genuinely odd choice. After all, you've had films like Martin Scorsese's The Aviator and Lasse Hallstrom's The Hoax, and the aborted Christopher Nolan film as well.
Possibly one of the most striking things about Rules Don't Apply is its impressive cast in smaller roles, with the likes of Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Oliver Platt and Candice Bergin all turning up in very minor parts of the film - but all of them making an impact. That's obviously a testament to Warren Beatty's considerable pull, but the film overall makes you wonder if they signed up on the strength of the script or merely to help out Warren Beatty. The story is an interesting if predictable one. Lily Collins plays a young actress who's signed to Howard Hughes' RKO Studios and is put up in a beautiful house in Los Angeles and paired with a driver, played by Alden Ehrenreich.
Beatty directs and shoots the film likes it's from the era, all soft lighting and golden vistas. Caleb Deschanel's cinematography is lush and beautiful, and the period detail in the production design really helps to sell it all. The performances, as well, from Ehrenreich, Collins et al helps you to buy into it and you're carried along, but the film becomes so jarring and disconnected that it's hard to follow. There's so many quick cuts and ramblings that it feels almost as if Howard Hughes himself directed the film. That, of course, might be intentional on Beatty's part, but it doesn't make for a good film.
Despite all the lushness, all the beautiful music and scenery, Rules Don't Apply is a mess. The tone is all over the place, shifting from straight-up comedy one minute, to romantic drama the next, to deep-dive investigation into Hughes' life, that it's hard to keep up with the film. It's clear that Beatty is passionate about the film and so to are all the actors involved, but there's a nagging sensation that you've seen it before and seen it done better.
It's a real shame that Beatty decided this particular idea would be his comeback film from directing, as he's incredibly talented and capable of far better.