For the first time in 18 years, Hollywood legend Warren Beatty has directed a feature film. His last was Bulworth (1998), and before that, Dick Tracy (1990) — and, as in those, he stars in his latest, too.
Well, it might be more accurate to say Beatty sort of stars in Rules Don’t Apply, his long-anticipated movie about Howard Hughes, the eccentric, obsessive billionaire who, among other things, was a big-budget Hollywood tycoon in the 1920s, while also making history for his investments into aviation. Playing Hughes, Beatty is by turns charming and unhinged.
But the story’s main arc is of love and loss, and the couple at its center are starlet and songwriter Marla Mabrey and aspiring real-estate mogul Frank Forbes. The pair are played by Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!), both of whom, as far as I can tell, were transported into 2016 as a gift to us from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Hughes comes into the movie when their lives intersect with him, and then he takes over the whole thing, which seems in keeping with his narcissistic character.
It all sounds interesting, and Rules Don’t Apply is often fun: light on its feet, not concerned with making any real points, more of a romantic caper than anything else for most of its runtime.
But it’s also a sincerely strange movie, to the point where most critics — including me and the people I was seated near — left the theater scratching their heads. Was it a screwball comedy? A tragedy? A tale of old Hollywood? Something else? Were we to leave laughing, or carrying away some warning about the dangers of misogynistic, controlling, narcissistic billionaires working for the government? (Too soon?)
"What a strange movie!" a prominent critic seated near me declared afterward, echoing my own thoughts. "It was such a strange movie!" someone said to me the next morning.
I don’t mean this as disparagement, necessarily; sometimes the strangest movies are the ones most worth seeing. Rules Don’t Apply is a strange bird, but it’s not a bad one, if you’re up for four or five movies crammed into one, coupled with an earwormy musical number and some senseless wandering around. But it’s not really a good movie, either.
Rules Don’t Apply accidentally hit theaters at the worst possible time
An epigraph before the movie warns us not to take anything we’re about to see too seriously — probably because, while Hughes was a real figure, the movie compresses various events of his life and inserts fictional characters, eventually taking on the cast of an old, fictional Hollywood narrative closer to Sunset Boulevard than a biopic.
Marla, a bright-eyed aspiring starlet and devout young Baptist from Virginia, has been invited to join Hughes’s de facto harem of other starlets who may or may not be cast in one of his big studio projects. (They’re all under contract to Hughes’s projects, but spend their days listlessly taking "classes" and hoping Mr. Hughes calls.) The harem is de facto mostly because nobody ever sees Hughes, who’s by now displaying reclusive tendencies so marked that even his assistants don’t always get to meet him.
Those assistants include Frank, a young man with aspirations to buy up property in a nearby valley and start a suburb into which he can eventually move his fiancée and start a family. But he’s assigned to drive Marla and her mother (Annette Bening) around, and starts to wonder if his fiancée is for him after all.
Meanwhile, both Frank and Marla are pining to meet Mr. Hughes — Frank for the business proposition, and Marla because she’s supposed to be doing a screen test for one of his films. It comes slowly, and when it happens for both of them, it’s extremely weird.
Rules Don’t Apply shines with acting talent, but falters as a film
The strangest thing about Rules Don’t Apply is its editing, which is always either a beat too slow or way too fast. The thing about editing is most people don’t really notice it unless it’s either innovative (in a way that enhances the story) or totally off (in a way that distracts from the story). The latter is true here: Scenes are constantly much shorter or way longer than they ought to be, cutting off right after someone finishes a line without a beat to comprehend, or lingering way after their effect is exhausted. It sounds like a little thing, but it makes the film feel like it’s made by an amateur — which Beatty is decidedly not — and doesn’t seem to have a precedent in the older films it wants to emulate.
Luckily, Rules Don’t Apply’s best reason for existing is Ehrenreich (your young Han Solo, by the way) and Collins, a pair with delightful chemistry who channel the smoldering lead men and bright-eyed ingenues of old. Collins, in particular, can pull off everything from bright-eyed pious naïf to delightfully innocent drunk to, eventually, self-assured woman.
But this is also star-studded cast — here are a few of the minor and even bit players: Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen, Annette Bening (who is married to Beatty), Martin Sheen, Haley Bennett, Paul Schneider, Taissa Farmiga, Ed Harris, Oliver Platt, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Coogan. Strings got pulled to make this movie, and it’s fun to see who shows up on screen.
Still, most of the movie’s dramatic tension draws on the fact that you have basically no idea what is going to happen — not because of great writing, but because Hughes is a really unpredictable, inscrutable guy. He eats burgers at 3 am on stretches of concrete positioned front of his planes; he later flies them around in circles, terrorizing passengers and crew while chattering maniacally; he hires body doubles who look like only a kooky heir’s doubles can look (which is to say, nothing like him); eventually he maroons himself on a bed surrounded by a curtain. He likes to play with journalists. He has major daddy issues.
If this sounds familiar, it is: Rules Don’t Apply, through no particular fault of Beatty’s, has been released at potentially the worst time in decades in terms of piquing interest in its peculiar historical center point. Hughes holds sway over young women and men, because they are in his employ. Middle-aged women and men — who maybe ought to know better — scurry around at his beck and call mostly because he’s rich and powerful. The US government calls him on the regular for help, since he owns some prominent companies. He talks about his father’s company a lot.
I don’t need to tell you why that’s disconcerting, but it also means maybe the best reason to see Rules Don’t Apply is that it is the very definition of escapist cinema: It will make you feel as if everything could be all right. I don’t know. Maybe crackpot rich guys are just really lonely. Maybe a song written by a starlet can make the world make sense. The rules don’t apply anymore.
Rules Don’t Apply releases in theaters on November 23.