Rules Don’t Apply
Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Warren Beatty, Annette Benning, Matthew Broderick
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Zigs when it should zag, stumbles when it should skip, and feels about an hour longer than it actually is.
In the Hollywood of the 1950s, a naive ingenue, Marla (Lilly Collins), fresh from a flyover state beauty contest, is picked to be one of entrepreneur Howard Hughes’ (Warren Beatty) “contract girls” – potential starlets put on the payroll of RKO studios and kept dangling with the promise of a screen test. She forms a friendship, and a potential relationship with her driver, Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), another newcomer to Hollywood who wants to convince Hughes to come in on a real estate deal with him.
Neither of them have met the notoriously reclusive Hughes, of course, but he looms large over their lives – not only does he cut their cheques, but he enforces strict rules of conduct for his staff, including a ban on philandering with the contract girls (he prefers to keep them for himself). For their part, Frank and Marla have their own religious backgrounds to keep them in check (he’s a Methodist, she’s a devout Baptist), plus more corporeal moral gatekeepers in the form of Marla’s chaperoning mother (Annette Benning) and Frank’s fiancee back home (Taissa Famiga). Can the course of true love – or even Hollywood Hills hanky panky – run true? Maybe, but we’ve got an awful lot of Warren Beatty grandstanding as Howard Hughes to get through first…
Rules Don’t Apply is, quite simply, a mess of a film. Rambling, self-indulgent, fitfully paced and narratively incoherent, it takes a fairly rote will they/won’t they romance, casts two incredibly appealing actors as the principals, and then sidelines it for a kind of half-assed semi-biopic of eccentric mogul Hughes. Which isn’t to say that Beatty as Hughes isn’t an interesting screen phenomenon – the old boy is still an arresting presence, even when he’s hamming it up with affectations that run from tics in the early stages of the film to full-blown mania and paranoia in the back half. Essentially there are two movies here – one dealing with star-crossed lovers under the studio system. one dealing with Hughes’ attempts to keep control of his empire even as his personal demons make him unfit for public consumption – and they’re a poor fit for each other. The film zigs when it should zag, stumbles when it should skip, and feels about an hour longer than it actually is.
Which is not to say there aren’t moments of enjoyment to be gleaned. The period setting is simply beautiful, and as a writer and director Beatty has a strong feel for the tone and telling details of his milieu – and well he should, given it’s ground zero for his entire career. The cast is great – even hobbled by the script, Ehrenreich and Collins bring considerable charisma to their roles, and Beatty is able to marshal an impressive number of quality performers to fill out the rest of the cast; Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen, Steve Coogan, Ed Harris, Dabney Coleman, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, and Oliver Platt all put in appearances, some of them for a single scene. And ye, it is interesting to draw parallels between Beatty the man and Hughes the character, wondering how much of himself he sees in the preternaturally gifted but embattled titan, a maverick struggling against a system that doesn’t recognise his genius (although hopefully Beatty, a much-lauded Hollywood veteran, has a more realistic self image than that).
Sadly, those elements don’t add up to a cohesive and enjoyable whole, though. The film’s characters spend a lot of time telling each other that the rules don’t apply to them, but the axioms of good filmmaking certainly do, and this effort falls short.