At 79 years old, directing his first film in nearly two decades, Warren Beatty has found in Howard Hughes a larger than life character that’s bigger than the Hollywood legend himself. And while Beatty has refuted the notion that “Rules Don’t Apply” is a film about Hughes specifically — a disclaimer opens the film making it clear that facts and dates are loosely adhered to — that’s not entirely true, and trying to contain the famed eccentric is one of the issues the enjoyable, sprawling picture attempts to overcome. It’s a film set in a world that orbits around the industrialist and his life, but strives to make those details mere backdrop to a story about the hypocrisies that lie beneath structures of American power. It’s a comedy, drama, and romance rolled into one, and while it never quite comes together, “Rules Don’t Apply” is never uninteresting.
At first the film follows wide-eyed, aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) who arrives in Hollywood with her mother Lucy (Annette Bening) by her side, with a coveted contract to work under Hughes (played by Beatty), who runs RKO Pictures (among many other ventures). Her excited exclamations of “Blessed savior!” underscore her openly Baptist upbringing and small town innocence, all of which charm her driver, the Fresno-bred, Methodist-raised Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich). The promise of stardom and the trappings provided by Hughes — housing, talent classes, transportation — are all initially thrilling to Marla, as she patiently awaits meeting the great man, getting a screentest, and starting down the path to fame. As for Frank, he too is eager to meet his reclusive boss, studying books on economics, and preparing to pitch him on a possible land deal. Marla and Frank’s easy chemistry and shared ambitions draw the pair closer together, but it not only finds them in conflict with their religious convictions, but with Hughes’ detailed contracts which state that relations are forbidden between those in his employ and the multiple women he keeps housed all over the town.
However, the glimmer of those possible dreams starts to fade when Hughes finally gives Marla and Frank some time out of his busy schedule. Inattentive, obsessive, socially awkward, withdrawn, demanding, paranoid, and going deaf, at least early on, Hughes is able to manage his behavioral and mental oddities to keep running his businesses. However, it doesn’t take long to see that he’s using everyone he draws into his circle, including Marla and Frank, to feed his needs — carnal or corporate — gaining the loyalty of those around him with a big enough paycheck or lifestyle to fend off resistance, and dumping anyone who dares to present Hughes with bracing honesty. Cleverly, “Rules Don’t Apply” is at times a sly indictment of power structures that hold those on the lowest rungs (particularly women) to a social and cultural double standard than those who are at the top don’t abide by themselves. It also chides enablers who allow these structures to operate, if only to protect their lucrative or opportunistic place in it (a different version of this movie could easily be called “At Any Cost”). At its best, the film is potently relevant as we enter a presidency won by a misogynist, where faith based and profit driven policy could be a defining characteristic to the detriment of millions of citizens. However, Beatty never fully commits to that fascinating thematic undertone and at times the film’s two hour plus bulk waters down its best ideas.
With four credited editors — Robin Gonsalves, Leslie Jones, Brian Scofield, Billy Weber — its clear the director had lots of footage to work with, and sometimes that’s felt quite palpably. With the story stretching across five years, “Rules Don’t Apply” can often seem haphazard or rushed as it skips through time. But perhaps most problematic is the film’s uneven tone. Presented with the vibe of an old fashioned Hollywood movie (complete with rear projection sequences), it floats on a free-flowing breezy pace, which doesn’t always mesh with the film’s more dramatic moments, which are all uniformly great. However, where the picture mostly hits the rough patch is throughout the second act, where we spend plenty of time with Hughes as it tracks his decline, often playing it for comedy, and his desperate attempts to retain control of his businesses, and keep the government from sticking their nose in his affairs. Marla disappears as the story pivots to Hughes and Frank, and when she does return, Beatty’s decision for a crowd-pleaser ending slightly undermines the best messages “Rules Don’t Apply” is trying to get across.
As exciting as it may be to have Beatty return to the big screen, and he’s undeniably compelling as Hughes, he’s more than happy to defer to rising stars Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins who both turn in terrific performances. Collins is especially impressive, sparkling in the early parts of the picture as Marla embraces the glittering world she’s stepped into, and soberingly raw as she comes to realize the cost of her dreams, and the realities of a world that holds unfair demands on her gender. “Rules Don’t Apply” looks utterly gorgeous too, with Caleb Deschanel making even Hughes’ living spaces, often shrouded in near darkness, appear beautiful. The cinematographer also gives an unmistakable glow to both lead actors, with Ehrenreich never looking more A-list ready, while Collins is luminously radiant. And this is all amid set design that is as detailed as I’m sure it was expensive, making the film look like it was lifted right out of ‘50s and ‘60s.
Peppered with countless stars popping up in small supporting turns (Candice Bergen is great as Hughes’ secretary Nadine; Matthew Broderick also shines as Hughes’ longtime aide Levar; Paul Schneider is hilariously Cheeto-colored in a minor but important part) “Rules Don’t Apply” is never less than lively. If its somewhat unfocused narrative comes at the cost of a picture that could be more cohesive and concise, it still gifts viewers with characters and an era that’s entertaining to explore. There’s a sensation that in making the movie, Beatty himself lived up to the title, choosing not to play by anybody’s expectations but his own and luxuriating in following the tangents the story takes. And frankly, Beatty’s one of the few directors who make that journey worthwhile. [B]