In March, Warren Beatty will be 80. Eighteen years have passed since he last directed and starred in a film. That was Bulworth (1998), a political comedy that, let's say, is unlikely to be among the movies for which he'll be remembered. As I watched Beatty's latest and possibly last project, I couldn't help reflecting on how fast time flies. And wondering to what extent the average moviegoer is even aware of this living legend's place in Hollywood history.
Consider your typical X-Men: Apocalypse fan. Has he seen Bugsy (1991) or Dick Tracy (1990), much less Shampoo (1975), The Parallax View (1974) or the groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde (1967)? Does he have a clue that, while Orson Welles made history by snagging Oscar nominations as actor, producer, writer and director of the same picture, Beatty is the only filmmaker ever to accomplish that feat twice? (The honors were for Heaven Can Wait  and Reds , the latter earning him an Academy Award for Best Director.)
It's a hell of a career — and there are worse ways to wrap it, I suppose, than with a project like Rules Don't Apply. Still, Beatty didn't do himself any favors by batting around the idea of a Howard Hughes film for half a century. The delay allowed Martin Scorsese to beat him to the punch with The Aviator (2004). As a result, much of the ground covered in Rules seems familiar.
Granted, this isn't a biographical portrait but a love story that just happens to have Hughes looming over it. It's the tale of an aspiring actress named Marla, played by Lily Collins (daughter of Phil), who gets signed to Hughes' RKO Pictures and falls for her driver, Frank (Alden Ehrenreich). Studio contracts prohibited employees from entering into romantic relationships with each other, so much of the movie's screwballish plot centers on the couple's attempts to conceal their involvement.
Beatty sets the romance in 1958 and plays the eccentric billionaire in his fifties, a stretch even for a 79-year-old in great shape. Most of his scenes are shot in near-darkness. His dye job isn't particularly subtle. Then there's the script's jumbled timeline.
In an apparent attempt to squeeze in as many of the tycoon's greatest hits as possible, Beatty places various events in Hughes' life within a few years of each other, including the near-fatal plane crash responsible for his codeine addiction, his halting of production on a picture because he didn't like the design of its star's brassiere, his triumphant flying of the colossal Spruce Goose and the Clifford Irving hoax. In reality, those milestones were spread over 40 years.
Even for an artist with Beatty's gifts, it's possible to overthink a project. That appears to be what happened with this film. Over the five decades it bounced around in the filmmaker's brain, the concept changed countless times, from the original plan for a standard biopic to the good-natured goofball farce we have here. Beatty's performance as Hughes is full of humor and high spirits, but it's really only entertaining because the guy was such a fascinating freak. There's nothing new here except for the love story — and that, unfortunately, is a frequently silly, forgettable bit of fluff.
As I say, there are worse ways to wrap a career. Still, we're talking about Warren Beatty. The movie's disastrous opening weekend had to be humiliating. Lots of filmmakers would be satisfied still to be in the game and calling shots at Beatty's age. But something tells me this is a case in which that rule doesn't apply.