• by Wes Singleton

Rules Don't Apply, B-

Rated PG-13, 127 minutes

Acclaimed, Oscar-winning filmmaker and actor Warren Beatty makes his return to the big screen as enigmatic entrepreneur Howard Hughes in the flawed but engaging, well-acted dramedy "Rules Don't Apply." Overlong, hardly substantial and not helped but a sluggish first act, it's the captivating, Oscar-worthy turn from Beatty as Hughes holds the film together, especially in its touching later chapters.

In 1958, Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a devout Baptist beauty queen from Virginia and an aspiring actress, arrives in Hollywood only a few weeks after Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), Marla's driver, an ambitious young businessman, and devout Methodist. Both of them long for success under their contracts with billionaire filmmaker, famed aviator, and notorious womanizer Howard Hughes (Beatty). The pair have an instant attraction, but this is hindered by the strict rules laid down by Hughes that prohibit any romantic or sexual interaction between his employees.

Directed and written by Beatty in his first directorial outing in nearly 20 years (1998's "Bulworth") and his first appearance on screen in 15 years, "Rules Don't Apply" is engaging trifle, with material seemingly more slight than other efforts made about Hughes, including Scorsese's "The Aviator" and 1980's "Melvin and Howard," both solid films with a deeper subtext than Beatty's film, which is good but not in the same league as those aforementioned films, and certainly not the triumph that many would expect from the guy who made such classics as "Reds" and "Bonnie and Clyde."

"Rules Don't Apply" mixes fact with fiction, altering facts and dates, exploring the eccentric Hughes and his weird habits (banana nut or french vanilla ice cream?) while two of his employees have a discreet romance his company forbids. As the young lovers, both Ehrenreich, a rising star seen in the Coen's funny "Hail Caesar!" and "Mirror Mirror's" Lily Collins, are appealing, and Beatty gives them a surprising amount to do here, with Collins' original, wistful ditty "Rules Don't Apply" an especially nice addition.

Still, Beatty's Hughes is by far the most intriguing part of the film, and his poignant turn, as the oddly fascinating Hughes, is wholly believable, especially in the last act of the film (and no surprise he gives himself the best part). On the downside, the sluggish first act is the film's biggest drawback, taking too long to establish the relationship with the young lovers, and some of Hughes' eccentric behavior, which is thrown at the audience in big ways, takes some warming up to.

The detailed sets, costumes and lush photography from Caleb Deschanel add some nice 1950's Hollywood texture to the film, even when it flits across the globe. Beatty has assembled a strong ensemble, some of whom are good: Matthew Broderick as Hughes's longsuffering assistant and Candice Bergen as Hughes's devoted secretary Nadine are warm touches. But there are many, many others who are underused or barely appear at all, including Beatty's real wife Annette Bening, Steve Coogan, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and in a blink, Paul Sorvino.

With too many characters and an overlong narrative that doesn't fully explore what made Hughes tick, "Rules Don't Apply" somehow comes together with a few touching scenes at the end, making a worthwhile view. Though not a classic by any means as some of Beatty's previous efforts, "Rules Don't Apply" makes you believe in his charm.

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