Not ready for her closeup

Thin characters doom Hollywood period piece

Starring Warren Beatty, Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich. Directed by Warren Beatty. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 2.0

From the first time I saw the trailer until the credits crawled by at the end of the movie itself, I wanted to like Rules Don’t Apply. It’s beautifully photographed by Caleb Deschanel, gorgeously designed by Jeannine Oppewall with an eye for the period (1958-64) and conscientiously acted by a large and glittering cast. But it’s an ungodly mess. It’s one of the most beautifully photographed, gorgeously designed and conscientiously acted ungodly messes to flash across movie screens in years. And even as I write this, I still want to like it.

Warren Beatty has been absent from the screen for 15 years, and he’s wanted to make a movie about Howard Hughes since at least 1979. Now that he’s done it, the result offers proof of the dangers of letting a project simmer too long on the back burner.

Beatty, who also wrote (with Bo Goldman) and directed the picture, plays Hughes with such relish and charm that it’s easy to overlook the fact that during filming he was seven years older than Hughes was when he died, and more than 20 years older than Hughes when the movie takes place. Beatty’s Hughes is boyishly enthusiastic in a way that makes it possible to understand why people would continue to work for him even as his peccadillos became more exasperating and his obsessions increasingly bizarre. In these scenes, we get a glimpse of the movie we might have had if Beatty could have made it 20 years ago.

But this is 2016, and Hughes becomes a supporting role, with his life’s events moved forward from the 1940s and backward from the 1970s to fit them into the time frame of the story.

The movie opens in 1958, when (we are told) Hughes is running RKO Pictures. In fact, by then he had already run it into the ground and sold out, but in the movie he’s still bringing starlets to the studio. One of them is Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a Baptist virgin from the South, whom the unseen Hughes ensconces with her watchful mother (Annette Bening) in a mansion on a hill overlooking the Hollywood Bowl. Here, Marla chastely bonds with her driver, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a less virginal but equally devout Presbyterian from Fresno who hopes to interest Hughes (whom he, like Marla, has yet to meet) in a real estate deal.

Collins and Ehrenreich are appealing, but their characters are barely sketched in Beatty and Goldman’s script, which betrays present-day Hollywood’s typical sneering incomprehension of people of faith.

Barely sketched characters are common in this movie; Beatty assembles Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen, Matthew Broderick, Paul Sorvino, Ed Harris, Oliver Platt and Steve Coogan, among others, then gives them almost nothing to do.

But I’ll bet the lunches and coffee breaks were a lot of fun.