Movie Review: “Rules Don’t Apply”

Warren Beatty, Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Matthew Broderick
Warren Beatty

Warren Beatty has reportedly been developing a film about reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes since the 1970s, but the passion project didn’t really begin to take shape until a few years ago when Beatty, who has lately become a bit of a recluse himself, teamed up with Oscar-winning screenwriter Bo Goldman to work on the script. Marking Beatty’s first directorial effort since 1998’s “Bulworth” and his first acting role since 2001’s “Town & Country,” “Rules Don’t Apply” is a clumsy and tonally uneven period piece that was likely spoiled by years of tinkering during its lengthy development process. Although it won’t harm his reputation too badly, it’s nonetheless a disappointing comeback that suggests Beatty should have stuck to retirement.

The year is 1959, and small-town beauty queen Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) has arrived in Los Angeles with her devoted mother (Annette Bening) after she’s invited by Hollywood producer Howard Hughes (Beatty) to audition for his upcoming movie. What they don’t realize is that Marla is only one of many young women that Hughes has under contract for the unknown role, with each wannabe actress provided their own house and chauffeured around town to acting and dancing classes while they await their opportunity to meet the enigmatic figure. Marla’s assigned driver, aspiring real estate developer Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), hasn’t even met his boss yet, but they’re both captivated by Hughes and realize what working for him can do for their careers. Despite a rule prohibiting any employee from becoming intimate with one of Hughes’ contract actresses, Marla and Frank begin to form an attraction, only to see their budding relationship threatened when they’re welcomed into Hughes’ inner circle and get caught up in the excitement and drama that it brings.

“Rules Don’t Apply” is a movie without a clear identity. It wants to be a farcical romantic comedy that treats Hughes and his many eccentricities as a joke, as well as a serious drama that explores the darker side of Hughes’ lifestyle. The film teeters back and forth between the two wildly different tones without ever fully committing to one of them, skipping around with the attention span of a toddler. The erratic pacing and abrupt editing (often cutting to the next scene before the current one is even over) certainly doesn’t help, but the biggest problem is Beatty himself, who transforms what is initially a sweet love story between the two youngsters into the Howard Hughes show. The main relationship is quite enjoyable, but it falls by the wayside once Hughes enters the picture. Though he works great as a mysterious, Wizard of Oz-type character who looms in the shadows, Hughes is such a larger-than-life personality that the minute Beatty switches focus to him, he sucks the air out of the entire room, and by extension, the film as well.

Beatty is so over the top as Hughes, playing him as an ice cream-obsessed nutcase without any nuance or the complexity of the real-life person (unlike Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal in “The Aviator”), that it borders on parody. Thankfully, Ehrenreich and Collins have such great chemistry that the movie survives on their charm alone. Ehrenreich, in particular, continues to prove why he’s one of Hollywood’s hottest up-and-comers thanks to his compelling screen presence. The rest of the cast is wasted in small, throwaway roles (Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen share maybe a dozen lines between them, while Bening exits the film at around the 15-minute mark), with the exception of Matthew Broderick, who doesn’t get much to do other than hover in the background but still manages to earn some of the movie’s biggest laughs as Hughes’ head lackey.

“Rules Don’t Apply” isn’t necessarily a bad movie, but it is an incredibly flawed one, especially when you consider the talent involved. While the film is more historical fiction than biopic (it even begins with the disclaimer that certain names and dates have been changed), Beatty is so enamored with his subject that he fails to provide the other characters and plotlines with the same level of attention. Howard Hughes may have been a misunderstood genius who didn’t play by the rules, but in trying to employ that same ideology to his movie, Beatty only ends up making it as incoherent as the man himself.


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