A film review by Craig J. Koban December 2, 2016


2016, PG-13, 127 mins.


Warren Beatty as Howard Hughes  /  Lily Collins as Marla Mabrey  /  Alden Ehrenreich as Frank Forbes  /  Annette Bening as Lucy Mabrey  /  Matthew Broderick as Levar Mathis  /  Alec Baldwin as Bob Maheu  /  Haley Bennett as Mamie  /  Taissa Farmiga as Sarah Bransford  /  Martin Sheen as Noah Dietrich  /  Oliver Platt as Forester  /  Candice Bergen as Nadine Henly

Directed by Warren Beatty  /  Written by Beatty and Bo Goldman

When Warren Beatty stars in and directs a movie it's kind of a big deal...almost an event in itself.  

This is made especially true considering that his creative output over the years has been anything but prolific.  RULES DON'T APPLY not only represents the Hollywood legend's first movie role since 2001's TOWN AND COUNTRY, but it's also his first film behind the camera in nearly two decades, his last effort being the 1998 political satire BULWORTH.  Beyond that film, BUGSY and DICK TRACY, Beatty has only directed three films in the last 26 years. 

So, yeah...when he makes a film it's an event. 

RULES DON'T APPLY, at a cursory glance, is a period film set in the 1960's concerning the life and times of Howard Hughes (Beatty has been so fixated with him that making some sort of biopic has dogged him for several decades).  Yet, Beatty's screenplay here (co-written by Oscar winner Bo Goldman) is not an all encompassing chronicle of Hughes' life, nor is it even ostensibly about the enigmatic aviator and filmmaker.  Hughes casts a rather large shadow in RULES DON'T APPLY, but the film is really a budding romance between two lost souls that find their lives inexplicably intertwined through their very relationship with Hughes.  In many ways, that's a most refreshing approach to dealing with Hughes in a film, but it also unfortunately typifies one of the damning problems that hurts RULES DON'T APPLY: More often than not, the film's overall focus is scattershot, leaving Beatty trying as he can to make sense of it all. 



The film is bookended in the present, so to speak, with the middle sections forming an elaborate flashback that helps to explain all of the story particulars.  The flashback chuck of the story begins in the late 50's as we're introduced to a Virginia beauty queen named Marla Mabrey (Lilly Collins, radiant and poised) that has arrived in L.A. with her ultra conservative mother (Annette Benig) to take part in a lucrative screen test for the increasingly reclusive Howard Hughes (Beatty).  Marla soon learns that actually meeting the producer icon will be no easy feat.  That, and she soon learns that she is but many women that he has personally flown into the City of Angels and set up with luxurious lodgings to prep them for the possibility of a glamorous movie life.  Marla is predictably frustrated at her initial lack of progress, but she's nevertheless content, seeing as Hughes has provided everything at her disposal, including a daily chauffeur in the form of Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a young ambitious businessman that works for Hughes to make ends meet.   

Frank is given a strict set of rules that he must abide by while driving Marla around, most important of which is to not engage in any hanky panky with her...at all.  Despite these occupational conditions, Marla and Frank develop a fondness for one another and have one thing in common: neither have actually had a face-to-face meeting with their ultra mysterious boss.  Fate does step in when Marla is granted a very, very peculiar screen test with Hughes under highly secretive and guarded circumstances, during which time he's revealed as a man with a serious screw loose.  Nevertheless, Marla is ecstatic over her meeting, as is Frank with his own face time with Hughes, who decides to make him figure into his day to day operations on a more intimate level.  Unfortunately for both Frank and Marla, they both begin to notice that Hughes is, in fact, a highly unstable man with clear cut psychological issues, which negatively begins to cause their own relationship to take a tailspin for the worse. 

Again, one thing that I admire about RULES DON'T APPLY is its audacity to not just be about Howard Hughes.  If anything, he remains a shadowy fringe figure throughout the film's first 20-30 minutes, which allows the story to hone in on the character dynamics and fledging romance between Frank and Marla.  Beatty's film is a Howard Hughes film that doesn't have much of Howard Hughes in the opening sections and this makes his reveal later on carry a larger dramatic magnitude.  That's not to say that Beatty is not fascinated with Hughes because of his limited screen time in the opening stages.  No, Beatty manages to capture the scope of the man's wealth and power by simply having characters talk about him.  When he does appear he's clearly a chronic agoraphobe and suffering from the ravages of obsessive compulsive disorder, which leaves everyone - Marla and Frank specifically - re-evaluating a man they once considered with a near mythic stature.  In many ways, RULES DON'T APPLY doesn't feel slavish to the standard troupes of obligatory biopics and finds a unique manner of bringing Hughes to life without engaging in a lot of monotonous exposition.  

The romance between Frank and Marla is an intriguingly complex one.  She's a devout Baptist and he's an equally faithful Methodist, but both become caught in the crosshairs of Hughes' rather domineering intrusion in their respective lives and hopes for the future.  I've never been fully enamored with Lilly Collins as an actress and none of her past films have warranted a change in opinion (like MIRROR, MIRROR and THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES), but she's so strongly assured and authentic here and confidently holds her own in many key and memorable scenes with Beatty himself, which is no easy task.  Alden Ehrenreich (the future young Han Solo in the upcoming STAR WARS standalone film) has a young matinee idol quality that serves this film's period well (think Harrison Ford meets James Dean), but he also gives a richly textured performance as Frank and has ample chemistry with Collins throughout.  RULES DON'T APPLY is also littered with supporting performances and cameos by a relative who's who of Hollywood heavyweights (including Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin,  Oliver Platt, Ed Harris, and Candice Bergen, just to name a few), all that turn out fairly stellar work in the somewhat marginalized roles that many of them have. 

Then, of course, there's Beatty himself, and it's a most welcoming sight to witness him successfully return to the silver screen after such an unpardonably long sabbatical.  At nearly 80-years-old (a bit too old to play then Hughes in his sixties), Beatty remains a commandingly handsome presence on screen and displays the old performance twinkle in his eyes here that proves why he's still an authoritative movie star.  It could easily be said that Beatty's Herculean stature in Hollywood history somewhat stymies the effectiveness of the young actors around him here (like Hughes, Beatty also casts a large shadow over everyone in the film), but he captures Hughes' cockiness, flamboyance, and ultimately fractured from reality mindset that makes RULES DON'T APPLY so endlessly watchable every time he appears.  Beatty's Hughes is flashier than I expected, but remains a figure steeped in melancholic loneliness that surrounds himself with yes men that seem to all but refuse to acknowledge his need for psychiatric care. 

Unfortunately, Beatty the writer/director doesn't work as well as Beatty the star here.  Firstly, RULES DON'T APPLY has several key sequences that use beyond-obvious stock footage for establishing shots, which I'm not sure has something to do with Beatty wanting to approximate how movies were shot in his story's period in question or whether it's because he had limited resources and a minuscule budget.  His editing in the film too is a real hatchet job, with many scenes feeling like they're abruptly cut before they have a chance to thoroughly end because he seems to be in a unstoppable rush to get to the next sequence.  The manner that the film hop scotches from scene to scene - sometimes without rhyme or reason - creates a real jarring narrative disharmony.  Beyond its clumsy and rushed editorial approach, RULES DON'T APPLY has an identity disorder in the sense that it's simply trying to do too much.  What is this film really about?  Frank's toxic work relationship with Hughes?  Frank's equally problematic relationship with Marla?  Marla's quest for Hollywood domination and her strained ties to Hughes?  Hughes' desperate attempts to ward off TWA Airlines, Hollywood, and the federal government as a whole from taking over his business ventures due to his mentally unfit stature?  RULES DON'T APPLY tries to be all of these things at once, often to its detriment. 

There's so much to appreciate in this film, like, yes, the fact that we get to see Beatty act again.  That's beyond fantastic.  RULES DON'T APPLY also has individual character moments of dramatic and comedic brilliance that features many talented actors chew through their agreeably snappy dialogue that's a pleasure to behold.  Collins and Erenreich are limitlessly appealing as a couple here too.  Yet, I can't in good conscience recommend this film, seeing as the sum of its great beats that do work don't make for an engaging and satisfying whole.  RULES DON'T APPLY is an unmitigated mess at times that paradoxically is hypnotically fascinating, but it's ultimately a very rough, misshapen, and distractingly imperfect effort from Beatty that perhaps could have benefited from a multi-part HBO miniseries treatment instead of being jammed into the confines of a two hour film.  RULES DON'T APPLY certainly breaks many filmmaking rules as far as conventional biopics go, but it lacks creative discipline in the process.   


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