DIR/WRI: Warren Beatty • PRO: Warren Beatty, Steve Bing, Ron Burkle, Molly Conners, Frank Giustra, Sarah E. Johnson, William D. Johnson, Jonathan McCoy, Arnon Milchan, Steven Mnuchin, Sybil Robson Orr, James Packer, Brett Ratner, Terry Semel, Jeffrey Soros’ Christopher Woodrow • DOP: Caleb Deschanel • ED: Robin Gonsalves, Leslie Jones, Brian Scofield, Billy Weber • DES: Jeannine Oppewall • CAST: Lily Collins, Haley Bennett, Taissa Farmiga
Rules Don’t Apply is an odd beast of a movie filled with great moments and fine ideas, but ultimately fails to come together as a whole, biting off more than it can chew. Set from 1958 to 1964, this fictional story based around true characters and events revolves around the relationship that develops between an aspiring actress, Marla (Lily Collins) and her driver / future finance expert, Frank (Alden Ehrenreich) – both in the employ of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes (writer, director Warren Beatty). The young hopefuls’ blossoming love is challenged by personal issues, sexual mores of the time and the spectre their employer casts over their life.
In its opening passages the movie is delightful. The Hollywood of the era looks authentic – as beautiful as it is artificial. The pace is lively and upbeat, with Beatty cutting fast between scenes – delivering constant sharp dialogue. It helps that the cast is phenomenal with Collins and Ehrenreich’s charming performances deliberately evoking Old Hollywood. However, its Annette Benning as Marla’s outspoken religious mother who shines brightest in the early scenes – as her character gets increasingly wound up by Hughes’ simultaneously distant but invasive treatment of his hired actresses such as refusing to speak to them directly but having his employees spy on them and report back any unusual activity.
This first part of the film, as well as playing a tribute to old Hollywood in the vein of Café Society or Hail, Caesar!, touches on interesting themes. There is the clash between devout middle American values – no sex before marriage, the importance of church – with the hedonistic lifestyle of L.A. – where sex is a key part of what drives the film industry. Also, Beatty seems to be exploring how a figure as strange, larger than life and impulsive as Hughes affects everyone in his orbit. It’s a full half hour before Beatty in the role appears yet he’s mentioned constantly.
However, the more Beatty’s Hughes becomes prominent, the more the movie begins to falter. It’s not that the actor is poor in the role – in fact his eccentric behaviour and line delivery evokes warm memories of his performance in Bulworth – it’s just that film descends into a hodge-podge. There’s some strange editing choices. A huge portion of the movie rests on Hughes’ issues with his late father something which would be interesting if we ever got a glimpse into the relationship they shared. As we don’t, these scenes don’t evoke the emotion they should. Also, characters appear for one scene to share heartfelt moments with Hughes, yet because we haven’t seen them before and won’t see them again, the audience engagement just isn’t there.
Also, there is the leery element of the older Beatty writing, directing and starring in movies where he beds young glamorous women. Although, one could write off his characters’ relationships with Halle Berry in Bulworth and Lily Collins in Rules Don’t Apply as being rooted in reality, e.g. politicians often have younger mistresses and Hughes was a notorious playboy, it feels wrong here. The aviator/film-producer depicted here by Beatty (who is twenty-years older than the character he’s playing) is a past his prime, germaphobe whose eccentric behaviour leads many to want to have him committed. Meanwhile, up until this point Marla has been seen as a strong, intelligent and religiously devout woman who shares strong feelings for Frank. Thus, the scene, despite very fine work by Collins, doesn’t work narratively.
There are other issues – characters like Benning’s, Alec Baldwin’s or Ed Harris’ get dropped suddenly from the story leaving many loose ends. The plot devices linking Hughes into Marla and Frank’s lives are clunky. Despite these problems, part of me sort of wants to applaud Beatty (who has starred in and directed stellar movies in the past) for his ambition. Like the title of the movie, rules don’t apply to him. He’s earned the status where he can produce odd, quirky works such as this, that tackle big issues – admittedly with varying degrees of success. Rules Don’t Apply doesn’t hang together but for fans of Beatty there are glimmers of his now trademark stylish direction and witty dialogue. However, for a more focused depiction of Old Hollywood, seek out the Coen’s Hail, Caesar! also starring Alden Ehrenreich.
12A See IFCO for details
Rules Don’t Apply is released 21st April 2017