Rules Don't Apply
If anyone should make a feature film about the dying days of Hollywood’s golden age, it should be Warren Beatty. Consider that the actor and filmmaker began his show business career in the late 1950s, made his film debut as a 24-year-old in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass, and, most notably, saw the rise of “New Hollywood” and its eventual overtaking of the classic studio system.
Rules Don’t Apply (2016), his first foray into filmmaking since 1998’s Bulworth, is more or less a movie about the death of Hollywood’s greatest era, specifically using Howard Hughes, the billionaire businessman/investor/pilot/movie director/philanthropist, as an embodiment of the demise.
The film in store, long touted as Beatty’s comeback to the industry ever since its greenlighting was announced in 2011, is something of a beautiful jumbo. Rules Don't Apply is a smorgasbord of visual and sensorial pomp thwarted by Beatty’s indecisiveness as to what kind of movie he wants it to be. It’s two features crammed into one. In one moment, it’s a youthful romantic epic undermined by the sexual repression of the late 1950s. In the next, it’s a biographical take on Hughes’ unstable final years as a powerful Hollywood figure. It also plays with too many genres to come together cohesively: sometimes it’s a screwball comedy, sometimes it’s a tragedy, and sometimes it’s a melodrama or a satire or a darkened character study.
Given that Beatty is a technical maestro – just look at the stylistic wonders of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and 1990’s Dick Tracy – it’s inevitable that parts of Rules Don’t Apply work wonderfully, especially scenes dedicated to pleasing our aesthetic ideals. Beatty captures the glossy sheen of romanticized old Hollywood particularly well. But the movie never hooks us. It’s so overwhelmed with ideas and genres and characters and subplots that, by its ending, we labor to simply recollect what it’s about. Call it a good-looking mess.
Set in 1958, Rules Don’t Apply orbits around Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a piously religious Virginian beauty queen cum actress and songwriter trying to make it in Hollywood. Only she isn’t a struggling upstart with plenty of passion but little funding: she’s under contract with RKO, as reclusive bigwig Howard Hughes (Beatty) has caught wind of her talents, face, and body and has since become intrigued.
Paid a not-too-shabby $400 a week and given a ritzy home for her and her mother (Annette Bening) to live as she waits for her first screen test, she’s more a nobody poised to become a somebody than she is a strict nobody. Perhaps she’d even be better off trying to make it on her own: Hughes keeps her cooped up for so long that it’s only a matter of time before Mabrey’s mom goes home after figuring that what’s being set in motion really is too good to be true.
In the meantime, Mabrey starts a romance with her driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), who’s never met Hughes either. After a long period, though, do we all eventually get to meet the famous recluse, but he’s hardly the figure of Hollywood majesty we somehow expect him to be. What Hughes is, it seems, is a control freak manipulator losing his mind. To say he comes to set Mabrey and Forbes’ lives off course is an understatement.
But by the end of Rules Don’t Apply are we not much concerned with how the livelihoods of all involved have changed over the course of six years (the finale is set in a much more hardened 1964). Maybe we might if Beatty completely cut himself out and focused on the romance between Mabrey and Forbes, with Hughes being a figure that never actually appears. Or if the Mabrey and Forbes weren’t a thing and the film became strictly about Hughes.
But because Beatty gives himself so much screen time, because the supporting cast is completely comprised of big-named friends who seem to not be doing much more than prove how well-connected Beatty is in his industry, and because the most interesting individuals acting in the film – the endlessly appealing Collins and Ehrenreich – come to be auxiliary in a movie that would be much more compelling if its primary concern were about them, the film feels off-puttingly frantic and self-conscious.
As a result of its weird assemblage of muchness, throwback swag, and storytelling ambition that never comes through, Rules Don’t Apply is practically the definition of a vanity project that doesn’t work. There’s a sense that Beatty felt as though taking a near two decade break from filmmaking wouldn’t much matter to audiences, given the wild success backing him coming into the making of Rules Don’t Apply.
But the fact of the matter is is that he waited much too long to make this movie. The film is centrally a living legend’s attempt to announce that he’s still among the best moviemakers working today. But he’s rusty, and the way the feature tries to be so many things at once only indicates that Beatty is desperately trying to prove to himself that his long hiatus was worth it all along.
Fortunately, Rules Don’t Apply is charismatic during enough moments to show that he still has it, even if that having is sporadic and sometimes frustratingly unreachable. It’s at its best when it’s light on its feet and when it’s putting all its attention onto Collins and Ehrenreich, who really and truly do remind one of Audrey Hepburn and James Dean. But one can see the masterpiece lurking beneath Rules Don’t Apply’s surface. And that makes its inability to focus its cinematic intentions all the more disappointing. C