It’s reasonable to be skeptical about Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty’s first directorial effort in nearly twenty years and his first big screen acting performance in fifteen. While Beatty was never a prolific speed demon as filmmaker, that’s the sort of lengthy layoff that can rust up even the most limber creative joints. Even the fact that Beatty has been tinkering with a film centered around Howard Hughes for so long that the span is best measured in decades. All this suggests a film that arrives pre-atrophied.

Instead, Rules Don’t Apply is striking in its liveliness. From the very beginning, Beatty zips through scenes with a buoyant impatience, holding just long enough to polish off whatever narrative, character development, or thematic business needs handling and then moving right along with barely a half-breath spared. In less skilled hands, this approach could become scatted, fragmentary. Beatty’s old pro wisdom comes to bear, though, instilling the individual moments and their vibrant progression with clarity and purpose. As should be the case, the story is trimmed to the essentials.

That story may ostensibly be about Hughes (Beatty), but it mainly focuses on a pair of fictional characters in his odd sphere: a driver named Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) and the starlet hopeful (Lily Collins) he ferries around nineteen-sixties Los Angeles. In different ways, they’re simultaneously in thrall to and hampered by the wildly swinging whims of Hughes’s world, cloistered in privilege. They’re handy audiences surrogates, viewing the excess they’ve been inviting into with brows furrowed by wary wonder. Naturally, there’s also a shaky romance between the two, compromised by the controlling dictates of Hughes and their own religious upbringings. Beatty’s screenplay (Bo Goldman shares a story credit) is equal parts insightful and contrived in the rendering of the relationship, but the charisma of both leads goes a long way towards smoothing the narrative’s plaster.

Casting acumen has long been Beatty’s most formidable weapon, and not just because the gravitation pull of his movie star status means he can usually get whoever he wants, even if only for a scene or two. He has sharp instincts about who fits best in which roles, including an uncanny ability to discern how individual performers’ histories can help fill out a character. Ed Harris has essentially a single scene as Frank’s father, but the imposing figure he strikes immediately carries the characterization three-quarters of the way to the destination Beatty sets out. That further allows Beatty greater ability to keep things snappy. The whole film is peppered with performances that are as terrific as they are fleeting (led, it should be noted, by that of Annette Bening, the ace stacked at the top of Beatty’s deck).

While Rules Don’t Apply is a strong effort, it falters badly in the closing minutes. Everything Beatty has done to keep the film brisk and original is knocked asunder in favor of a deadening level of import. After a romp that’s admirably unconventional, Beatty caves in and delivers a closing that is drab, predictable, and contrived. At precisely the worst moment, rules are applied.

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