CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND A MUSICAL PUN
There are two movies going on here: one a forbidden romance set against the backdrop (or back-projection screen) of Old Hollywood, the other a starry biopic of the later years (mostly 1959, bookended with scenes in 1964) of increasingly irrational billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. Either one would be interesting by itself, but the trouble is that they're oddly bolted together, with the conventional boy-meets-girl fluff taking ever more of a back seat to the antics of a cranky old goat surrounded by his closest employees getting steadily more frustrated by his ever more erratic behaviour by the day.
In truth Rules Don't Apply is more of a love triangle between driver Frank (Alden Ehrenreich in his second Old Hollywood movie after Hail, Caesar!), fresh-off-the-bus aspiring contract player Marla Mabery (Lily Collins) and legendary industrialist and RKO studio boss Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty, also director, producer and screenwriter). Frank and Marla's relationship is forbidden not just by their own strict religious upbringing (and Marla's even stricter mother played by Annette Bening who really isn't in it enough) but by their employment contracts with Hughes, who's never even met them. Marla's pushy and insistent, though, finally getting her meeting and screen test, and more.... Meanwhile, Frank has to decide: does he want to make it on his own or stay within the Hughes empire at the cost of his dreams? Does he really want Marla or his seventh-grade sweetheart (Taissa Farmiga)?
In the second half of the movie, Hughes takes over, embodying Dennis Hopper's bad guy line from Speed that "poor people are crazy, I'm eccentric!". He won't meet the financiers whose loans his business needs, he holes up in hotel rooms and refuses to come out, he demands a truck full of one particular ice cream then demands a different flavour, he fires his minions for doing their jobs, he turns off the aircraft engines mid-flight. The trouble is that it's stated that "everyone's got a crush on Hughes" but aside from his billions there's no apparent reason why this version of HH would be so apparently attractive. Still, an array of familiar names and faces show up, some for only a scene and a couple of lines: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Alex Baldwin, Oliver Platt, Paul Sorvino, Martin Sheen, Steve Coogan.
In the manner of Woody Allen (who could have easily done the period Hollywood romance stuff, but a lot funnier and sharper), Rules Don't Apply doesn't have a score of its own, instead using pop songs from the likes of Bobby Darin and Rosemary Clooney and, several times, Gustav Mahler's wonderfully miserable Adagietto, most famously used in Visconti's Death In Venice but probably tracked in here because the female lead's name is Marla (Marla, Mahler, geddit?). It's a bit of a mess, too long at 127 minutes and it seems curiously old-fashioned, but the period detail with the cars, decor and fashions makes up for the lack of easy afternoon's entertainment that was promised by the poster and the first third or so of the movie. Even though it's half an hour longer, I much preferred The Carpetbaggers.