'Rules Don't Apply'
Warren Beatty has been obsessed with making a Howard Hughes movie for decades and it’s not hard to see why. After all, Beatty is a notorious control freak who meticulously supervises all aspects of any film he’s involved in, whether he’s directing or not. As you may have heard, Howard Hughes also had issues with control. He was also a dashing gent who slayed the ladies and lived the highlife – you know, like that Beatty character. Given the years and years Beatty spent developing the project, it would be easy to expect a magnum opus when you sit down for the first film that Beatty has even been involved with as an actor in 15 years. Sadly, ‘Rules Don’t Apply’ is no masterpiece.
Obviously, the selling point of the movie is seeing Warren Beatty play Howard Hughes. The film wouldn’t exist otherwise. However, for some reason, Beatty decided not to forefront his dream role. Instead, the movie’s focus is mostly on Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a virginal starlet whisked to Hollywood and hired for Hughes’ personal team of starlets, and Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a chauffeur also employed by the batshit crazy billionaire. Through their eyes, the audience is slowly introduced to Hughes. He’s not even onscreen for the first thirty minutes, operating as a man behind the curtain (often literally) or through a series of intercoms. His world is vividly shown, maddeningly huge and incomprehensibly designed for any mind other than his own. That kind of describes the movie’s relationship to Beatty as well. There are a lot of interesting ideas and images swirling about here. Why it all happens isn’t exactly clear. But it sure takes a lot of oddball slapstick diversions to get there.
The film unfolds with unique style. Beatty’s always been a bit of a showoff behind the camera and this is no exception. Odd old-timey film techniques like archival rear projection pop up without warning and the film flies by at a constant clip. Beatty condenses all the most eccentric aspects of Hughes’ life to a brief period and flies through them at an almost disconcerting pace.
Like many of his cinematic brain-childs, ‘Rules Don’t Apply’ is a politicized sex comedy. Beatty is fascinated by sexual mores and the discomfort they cause, and he loads on plenty of them here. He presents Hughes with almost a religious aura through the eyes of two churchgoing young folk and uses their disillusionment as the man goes mad for satirical purposes. It’s clear the director had a lot of ideas that he wanted to cram in, but none of them quite hang together in a satisfying way. It’s one big glorious mess, which I suppose is a reasonable approximation of Howard Hughes’ life in a generous reading.
One element that never disappoints is Warren Beatty’s portrayal of Hughes. He’s aloof and odd in those comedically cringe-worthy ways that the actor loves to play. The film has some big laughs in his eccentricities and the star chews scenery with glee. He’s a blast to watch, but ends up overshadowing everyone else in the cast. Even the typically dependable likes of Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Steve Coogan, and Ed Harris feel wasted. The young leads and their slapstick love story never quite gel. You’ll find yourself waiting for Beatty’s next big goofy scene, all the way up to his bearded and bottled urine days.
The movie is sloppy, overlong and indulgent, but also fun and fascinating. There’s plenty to enjoy here. It’s just a project that’s been overthought by Warren Beatty for so long that whatever his initial aims may have been got lost in all the noise. It also doesn’t help that the film pales in comparison to Martin Scorsese’s (admittedly flawed) ‘The Aviator’, which tread this same ground with more insight and energy (if less humor).
Ultimately, ‘Rules Don’t Apply’ is more of interest to those who are intrigued by the legend of Warren Beatty than the legend of Howard Hughes. This massive, oddball and unnecessary cinematic contraption is a monument to the all the actor/writer/director’s ambitions, talents and limitations. The film is almost his own Spruce Goose, sucking up years of energy and ambition that would have been better spent elsewhere, since no one else will care if this creation actually flies as much as its creator.