Film Review: Rules Don't Apply

Much-anticipated Warren Beatty project about Howard Hughes and the people he affected. Despite excellent performances, the movie lacks cohesion and focus.
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It would have been poetically right for a movie about the elusive, iconic and larger-than-life Howard Hughes—forged by Warren Beatty, who has been out of the limelight for 15 years—to be a brilliant work, the perfect Hollywood comeback and/or possible swan song for the legendary 78-year-old actor-director.  

The backstory is winning. Many have tried to get movies about Hughes off the ground to no avail and it didn’t happen overnight for Beatty either, who for four decades had his sights set on making Rules Don’t Apply.

He chose a great topic: an enigmatic billionaire, owner of RKO film studio, aeronautical engineer, pilot, notorious ladies man (not unlike Beatty himself), and control-freak recluse who had a penchant for TV dinners. Hughes was flanked by yes-men (whom he refused to see) and towards the end of his life lived in total solitude on the top floor of the Las Vegas Desert Inn while the gossip mill spun rumors that he suffered from some form of dementia.

But the film is not exclusively about Hughes. Much of it centers on twenty-somethings Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), who work for Hughes and fall in love, thereby defying Hughes’ mandate that his staffers never become romantically involved with each other. Marla is an aspiring young actress and Frank is her driver. To what degree the main story was calculated to attract a younger audience is up for grabs. It feels sneaky and, worse, suggests that the auteur didn’t have the courage of his convictions to focus his film on an old man.

Admittedly, Beatty has said the film is not a biopic (and that sounds a trifle disingenuous too), but rather an exploration of excessive wealth and misogyny in late-’50s Hollywood—as embodied in Hughes—seen through the eyes of two rural, religious youngsters who find themselves in a place where their core values are challenged at every turn even as they strive to make it in that wicked new world. Conflicts abound. Life decisions need to be reassessed.

Beatty says the youngsters’ experience reflects his own when he arrived in Hollywood. That may be, but it’s still not a compelling story as it unfolds here. More serious, Hughes is too complex a figure to be a sideline symbol and the dual narratives become mutual distractions. In the end, Rules Don’t Apply lacks cohesion and purpose, though its evocation of a time and place (costumes, cars, Hollywood streets) is spot-on.

Still, Beatty in the leading role is a selling point, especially in light of his absence from the public eye. Beatty attributes his disappearance to domestic bliss and his own labor-intensive, time-consuming, detail-obsessed approach to whatever film project he has starred in and/or directed and/or wrote and/or produced. Rules Don’t Apply is just the latest example in the wake of such hits as Bonnie and Clyde, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds and Bugsy. Beatty is known for his full-throttle commitment to his pictures, political activism, and well-publicized sexual trysts.

For Beatty (like Hughes), rules don’t apply and many viewers believe the two icons have had parallel lives. Beatty certainly plays with that conceit onscreen. Consider the dramatic buildup surrounding Hughes’/Beatty’s entrance that occurs well into the film and with much accompanying fanfare. Up to that point, his inaccessibility has been discussed ad nauseam by every member of his entourage. Marla is almost ready to turn around and go home when she is finally invited to meet with Hughes.

She’s in a darkened hotel room and as she looks around, her eyes zero in on his bed, set on a platform elevated above the floor and surrounded by candles that cast a shimmering golden light. It’s a lingering shot just as Hughes/Beatty enters.

Actor melding with character may indeed have elbow-nudging appeal to some mature audiences who appreciate Beatty’s and Hughes’ reputations as charming, unrepentant seducers. But one wonders what the scene (and the whole movie) says to younger audiences who probably never heard of Hughes and view Beatty as a has-been—assuming they even know his name. It becomes an in joke that they’re not in on.

Still, there are some provocative moments that have contemporary resonance, most pointedly in the scenes between Marla and her mom Lucy Maybrey (Annette Bening) that unwittingly underscore the thin line between Puritanism and mainstream feminism. Mrs. Mabrey is a religious prig and at one time moviegoers would have dismissed her as such. It’s no longer quite as easy to do so, since much of what she says is resoundingly modern, including the need for women to protect themselves from misogynistic characters in an exploitive universe like Hollywood.

Though she has little screen time, Bening creates a pragmatic and loving mom, however frustrated and repressed she may be in her own life. Ehrenreich as Frank is the earnest do-gooder beginning to understand that not everyone shares his values. Collins’ Marla is as ambitious as she is inexperienced, a steely determination belying her innocence.

The acting is excellent throughout and the cast is impressive: Candice Bergen, Steve Coogan, Martin Sheen, Ed Harris, Dabney Coleman, Matthew Broderick, Oliver Platt and Alec Baldwin, all of whom play characters that make up the Hughes staff and associates.

But the film belongs to Beatty. His Hughes is nuanced and authentic. He is unapologetically who he is and unaware of the impression he makes. Still, when he tells his lawyer that he would lose TWA should his bankers meet with him and realize how deteriorated he is, it’s a rare and painful moment of clarity. In Beatty's spin, Hughes is fading, has difficulty remembering events and frequently gropes for the right word.

If only his narrative had been the focal point, perhaps told through an evolving relationship with one character—that might have been a tale worth telling. It’s a lost opportunity.

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