Rules Don’t Apply
2016, PG-13, 126 min. Directed by Warren Beatty. Starring Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen, Annette Bening, Taissa Farmiga, Haley Bennett.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Wed., Nov. 23, 2016
Howard Hughes may have grown wary of the public eye, but 40 years after the famous recluse’s passing, the public eye still has him under the microscope. Martin Scorsese’s 2004 biopic The Aviator was a close-to-completist portrait of the entrepreneur, movie mogul, inventor, and oddball, while other films like Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard and Orson Welles’ F for Fake have chewed more peripherally on his outsize character.
At first, writer/director Warren Beatty’s passion project Rules Don’t Apply seems to fall in the second camp, casting Hughes (Beatty) as a side attraction to the budding love story between two of his employees in the late Fifties. Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich) is paid to chauffeur around Hollywood Hughes’ many starlets under contract, including Marla Mabrey (Collins), a devout Baptist trying to break into the industry without taking off her clothes. Frank and Marla both have big dreams – a source of their bonding – but step one to realizing those dreams is getting the unpinnable Hughes to actually meet with them face to face. Cleverly, Beatty withholds Hughes not just from Frank and Marla, but the audience, too. By the time we finally meet him, the anticipation has taken on Harry Lime-like proportions.
Oh, but what a steep drop-off follows. Beatty hasn’t acted in a feature film since the 2001 misfire Town & Country, and here, two-plus decades too old to be playing Hughes, he has just enough charisma to keep an erratically scripted character interesting as a supporting player – a prod on the plot and not its chief purpose. But he keeps tugging the covers from his young leads, drawing the story away from their winsome romance and toward Hughes’ mania and grasping to hold on to his company. He’s a seeming subplot that swallows the film whole.
Was that always the intention? There’s enough extratextual evidence to wonder if the movie mutated in postproduction: The credits list four editors, as well as the prominent billing of two actors (Dabney Coleman, Chace Crawford) I don’t recall making the final cut of the movie. That’s just speculation, of course. What’s plain onscreen – and often metered out in short, choppy scenes – is an inconsistency in tone, swerving from peppy to morose, and an ambivalence in whether we’re meant to read Hughes as a comical or tragic figure. Either way, Beatty has taken an object of enduring fascination and made him … not so much.