HOLLYWOOD. 1958. (This is about the same time Warren Beatty - writer, director, producer and star of Rules Don't Apply - arrives in town).
Virginia beauty queen Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and her strict Baptist mum (Annette Bening) are picked up at the airport by one of Howard Hughes's drivers.
Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) has also recently joined the staff of the legendary recluse.
Similarly devout, similarly ambitious, similarly intense, the two fresh-faced newbies form an almost instant attraction.
But since both their religious teachings and their boss forbid them to go any further, they sublimate their desire in a way that is completely foreign to contemporary audiences.
The fumbling sex scene, when it does finally happen, is played for laughs.
After discovering she is just one of two dozen starlets being groomed by Hughes, Mabrey's promised screen-test fails to materialise.
So, for that matter, does Hughes (Beatty).
The two young hopefuls are on the payroll for quite some time before they finally get to meet their boss, who is already exhibiting signs of paranoia and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Almost 30 minutes into the story, he finally shows his face.
Since Beatty plays up the absurdity of the situation, the encounter with the larger-than-life character turns out to be somewhat of an anticlimax (for the audience if not for his proteges.)
Rules Don't Apply opens with the quote: "Never check an interesting fact," which it attributes to Hughes himself.
This sets the screwball tone for a picture that can't decide whether it's a biopic or a romance and ultimately winds up satisfying neither convention.
Beatty waited 40 years to make a film about the billionaire aviator with whom Hollywood has an enduring fascination.
But rather than offer any substantive account of Hughes' increasingly erratic behaviour, or the pathological insecurities fuelling it, Beatty recounts this tale of money, power, excess and sycophancy with something more like dry amusement.
Wily, vain, unpredictable, egocentric and at times strangely self-aware, Beatty's Hughes comes close to being a figure of fun (the parallels with US President Donald Trump are uncanny.)
But perhaps the jokes on us, since he gets away with it. When you achieve Hughes' mythological status, the rules of ordinary human behaviour don't apply.
Beatty's first film in more than 15 years is an entertaining, insider's account of '50s Tinseltown with a keen eye for authentic period detail.
But having been a member of the circus himself for so long, Beatty's perspective is one of wry detachment.
I would have preferred the filmmaker to have had a bit more skin in the game.
Rules Don't Apply
Stars: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehenreich, Warren Beatty.
Director: Warren Beatty
Verdict: 3 stars
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