20th Century Fox 126 Minutes PG-13
If there’s a man who knows a thing or two about eccentricity it’s Warren Beatty. Warren Beatty writes, directs and stars as the legendary eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. This is his first film in over a decade, but this movie has been on his radar for 40 years. Has it been worth all that time?
According to Beatty Rules Don’t Apply is not a biopic, but primarily a love-story set in Hollywood during the sexually repressed Puritanical 1950’s. Lily Collins plays aspiring actress and virginal Baptist Marla Mabry. Hired as a contact player by Hughes when he owned the RKO Studio, she’s assigned a driver, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a faithful Methodist with a fiancé back home. His job is to not only get her to her screen tests, but to keep his hands off her. Hughes’ main directive is no fraternizing with the actresses.
But there’s also the dual track of comedy and farce in this script, especially when Hughes is wheeling and dealing along with his obsession to remain a shadowy figure. Beatty doesn’t bring Hughes on camera until almost 30 minutes into the film. The anticipation of wondering what he will look like and how he will behave makes his eventual entrance even more of an impact. We’re never quite sure, however, what to make of this character. Is he a genius, crazy or just confused due to his addiction to pain meds? We get to see Beatty show his immense range as an actor through Hughes’ weird lens. At times he is brilliant and sharp. Then in an instant he turns dark, reclusive and so lost.
The dinner scene with Marla as they dine on aluminum plated frozen TV dinners is a surreal mix of frantic bursts of conversation and long silences. Hughes even breaks out into a saxophone solo! Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel shoots Hughes’ scenes in muted colors and almost in the dark making it harder to see what he’s up to. This helps convey the mystery and confusion surrounding the man himself. That contrasts with with vivid colors and bright sunshine of the scenes in the backlot and on the streets of 50’s Hollywood.
Frank also gets his own dinner with Howard, having burgers and fries at the end of a dock looking straight on the nose of the largest airplane in the world, Hughes’ prized “Spruce Goose.” Frank desperately wants to pitch his real estate ideas, but Hughes seemingly isn’t listening to anything. But then we discover Hughes remembers every detail. Beatty says when he directs, he never directs himself, but takes all his cues by watching and listening to the other actors. Is he acting or reacting? Probably both.
And he has plenty of cast too react to. Beatty re-surfaces and the A-Listers line up. There’s Matthew Broderick, Alex Baldwin, Ed Harris, Oliver Platt, Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen, Steve Coogan, Amy Madigan and more who were more than willing to get in on the fun. Beatty’s wife Annette Bening, appears as Marla’s mother and gets a surprising amount of depth from her character for her short time on camera. This is she and Beatty’s first on screen appearance together in over 20 years!
While the plot hinges on Howard Hughes, the Frank-Marla love story is the driving force. While it’s interesting to see these two young, beautiful, emerging actors develop their on again, off again, on-screen relationship, ultimately the outcome is predictable and pretty formulaic. The chemistry of this repressed couple, is still unmistakable. The signature song that Marla writes and sings “Rules Don’t Apply” is simply the sweetest moment of the movie. It’s Collins’ moment to shine and she comes through.
This movie is set at the end of era when the studios controlled the entertainment industry with the iron fist. Beatty began his career during this time, so his re-creation of the period comes from his own memory, not just interpretation. The colorful scenery, big cars with bigger fins and women's’ lips covered with the reddest lipstick ever created, all help us understand the duality of the flashy exterior and the sexual repression lurking underneath at that time.
While it’s good to see Warren Beatty back at work and leading this all star cast, ultimately he hasn’t made a great movie. It’s neither a biopic nor a fully presented love story. Beatty seems to get confused in editing, trying to figure out which plot line to emphasize. This leads to unsatisfying results for both the Hughes story and the ending to the love story that was already telegraphed halfway through the film. Rules Don’t Apply needed more structure to tell this story. Sometimes film makers need to apply some better rules of their own.