It’s hard to overstate how big of a disaster Warren Beatty’s film Rules Don’t Apply is. The man who ruled Hollywood for over two decades has delivered the first movie he wrote, directed, and starred in since 1998’s Bulworth, and it’s a complete mess. Beatty became an instant sex symbol in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass, and he won the Best Director Oscar for Reds, his 1981 ode to John Reed, one of only two Americans ever granted burial at the Kremlin in Moscow. Almost none of Beatty’s earlier successful filmmaking skills are visible in his latest project.
Like Reds, Beatty’s focus for Rules Don’t Apply is also a real-life figure, mercurial billionaire Howard Hughes. The legendary stories about Hughes, a man who inherited his father’s oil drill bit company and used his fortune to focus on his twin passions of aviation and filmmaking, are practically the makings of a fantastic movie all on their own. If you need proof, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is a remarkable example. Not only was Hughes an eccentric and mysterious figure of great renown from the 1920s through the 1960s, he was also plagued with mental health issues, most notably a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Beatty’s movie, by contrast, suffers from bipolar disorder. There are sequences that are manic, trying desperately for a zany, infectious whimsy. But they never quite catch. Then there are sequences that succumb to torpor. These moments are exhaustibly boring. The movie practically antagonizes the audience by willfully refusing to advance the story. The editing is bad. Beatty’s acting is uninspired. The story, which isn't based on any real-life events, isn’t even very interesting.
The plot of Rules Don’t Apply focuses on a rather unconventional love triangle between Hughes, Marla Mabrey, one of the young women he places under an entertainment contract, and Frank Forbes, the man Hughes assigns as Marla’s driver. Marla is one of Hughes’ contract girls, living off him with the promise of making it big in his movies. Frank is her driver. He is explicitly told that drivers are not to fool around with the contract girls. And since this is a bad movie, the two immediately fall in love with each other, for no other apparent reason than that’s what happens in the movies. There is no build up to the inevitable relationship, it just is, and the audience is expected to accept it. That’s the first of many problems with Rules Don’t Apply.
Beatty’s confidence in his ability to simply pull an audience along with him doesn’t stop there. Marla is supposed to be an irresistible figure who is born for stardom, despite any character development to support that conclusion. In one scene, Marla confides to Frank her trepidation that she doesn’t fit any of the standard rules for success in Hollywood. Frank tells her that she is an exception, the rules don’t apply to her. But, why? Marla is an aspiring songwriter, but by her own admission that’s her only talent. She can’t sing, she has no experience with acting (the reason Hughes put her under contract in the first place), and she doesn’t consider herself beautiful by typical Hollywood standards.
I can only assume Beatty was sure that whoever he cast as Marla would be as irresistible as the character was in his own mind. Actress Lily Collins comes close. Her performance of the signature song of the film, the one Marla is inspired to write after hearing Frank’s kind words, is easily the most charming moment of Rules Don’t Apply. Collins and actor Alden Ehrenreich, who plays Frank, have a magnetic chemistry on screen, which slightly mitigates the fact that their characters are woefully two-dimensional.
The one performance that can’t overcome the writing is Beatty as Hughes. It might not be fair to compare his Hughes to Leonardo DiCaprio’s virtuoso portrayal of the mogul in The Aviator, but it’s instructive. DiCaprio fully inhabits the tortured billionaire, exploring his mental illness with both subtle nuance and bold stylistic choices. You feel the full weight of what Hughes suffered in that performance. Beatty, by contrast, portrays this same aspect of Hughes’ personality as a few cheap and shallow acting tics. Beatty uses the role as a way to once again prop up his legendary status as both an on-and-off screen lothario. The nearly 80-year-old Beatty’s onscreen love interest is over a half-century his junior. Playing a real-life eccentric billionaire who was himself famous for his romantic entanglements was seemingly the only way to make this plot point believable. Frankly, it’s rather sad.
Almost as sad, fundamental filmmaking techniques don’t even make an appearance in Rules Don’t Apply. In one scene, Hughes is testifying before a congressional committee about taking millions of taxpayer dollars for his company to produce a new war plane in the 1940s that was never delivered. The scene plays out entirely in close up and medium shot, never cutting to an establishing shot to give the audience any kind of spatial relation between the characters. The effect is bizarre and confusing, making me wonder if Beatty (as the director) never got the proper coverage he needed, or if his four editors were incapable of constructing a coherent scene between them.
Many people in the entertainment business have been anticipating Warren Beatty’s return to filmmaking. He is a legend in Hollywood. His career is inarguably filled with many great successes. At the same time, as with any body of work that spans over five decades, the actor/director has also produced plenty of disappointments. His latest is one of the latter, closer to Ishtar than Reds.
Why it got 1 star:
- Rules Don't Apply is borderline incompetent from a technical standpoint, and borderline incoherent from a storytelling standpoint. It is easily one of the worst films of the year.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There is exactly one sequence in the movie that gave me the sense of what Beatty was trying to achieve. It's a long scene that involves Marla getting drunk for the first time, and ends with Hughes proposing marriage to her. There are a lot of screen entrances and exits, and it has a very screwball comedy feel. The sequence almost works, but eventually it just fizzles out.