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Warren Beatty stumbles with ‘Rules Don’t Apply’ (PG-13)

What better way to round out the month of November 2016 than with a hectic, over-stuffed biopic about an eccentric billionaire despot who uses his inherited wealth to make a giant mess of things in both the entertainment industry and federal government? There’s a deep sense of irony in the release date of Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes film, “Rules Don’t Apply.” It would still be a stinker even if it wasn’t cloaked in a dark shroud of cultural and political relevancy.

Beatty plays the notoriously weird Hollywood and aviation mogul Hughes in the film, which he directed and co-wrote. The story concerns two young squires in his charge. Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins are the cute-as-buttons romantic leads, doomed young people who sell their souls to Hughes. Ehrenreich is Frank, a driver for the mogul, and Collins is Marla Mabrey, one of the numerous starlets under contract that Hughes strings along. Marla’s devout mother, Lucy (Annette Bening), is the only person who calls out the troubling, disrespectful behavior of Hughes, and so obviously, she’s quickly dispatched.

Characters and themes aside, “Rules Don’t Apply” is one hot, frantic mess. The efforts of four credited editors result in an itchy-edit-finger effect. The film hurtles along at a breakneck pace, slamming from scene to scene, intercutting disparate scenes of Marla and Howard and Frank willy-nilly. 

The film’s one bright spot is Collins, who is Audrey Hepburn-level adorable as the feisty, smart Marla, and proves her fast-talking screwball comedy chops. That’s why it’s all the more a shame to watch her become drunkenly entangled with the increasingly erratic and manipulative Howard. The story arc Beatty imagines for his heroine is disappointing.

A little ditty that Marla plunks out on the piano explains the film’s moral compass — a celebration of those individuals who decide the “rules” don’t apply to them. But if the film is supposed to laud the ways in which maverick Hughes ignored the rules (of the FAA, federal government, banks, etc.), it comes off more as an indictment. Despite a last-ditch Hail Mary feel-good ending supposed to make us sympathize with Hughes, the film is really a cautionary tale about the seductive nature of money and power, and the consequences of entering into an abusive relationship with a mentally ill person for the sake of getting ahead. In that light, “Rules Don’t Apply” proves to be stunningly prescient and a tale we should take to heart.

Cast: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen.

Writer-director: Warren Beatty.

A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 126 minutes. Brief strong language, drug references, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.