THE STORY – Small town beauty queen and devout Baptist Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), under contract to the infamous Howard Hughes, arrives in Los Angeles. At the airport, she meets her driver, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), only two weeks on the job and also from a religiously conservative background. Their instant attraction not only puts their religious convictions to the test but also defies Hughes’ number one rule: no employee is allowed to have an intimate relationship with a contract actress.
THE CAST – Warren Beatty, Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Annette Bening & Matthew Broderick
THE TEAM – Warren Beatty (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 126 Minutes
By Michael S.
When Orson Welles made “Citizen Kane,” many were quick to see the young filmmaker as a version of William Randolph Hearst. Both men had larger than life ambitions and simultaneously drove colleagues/investors a bit crazy. To say they were one of a kind would be an understatement. Jump to 2016, when Warren Beatty finally releases his decades long in the making passion project, “Rules Don’t Apply.” Playing the eccentric Howard Hughes, it becomes clear that Beatty has a lot in common with the filmmaker/aviator/entrepreneur. Both men work in relative secrecy, have connections to some of the most powerful names in the country, and are in a sense, mysterious men of luxury. To some, “Rules Don’t Apply” will come across as a slight, yet semi-enjoyable Hollywood romp. If that’s the case, so be it. Yet for those who have a deep knowledge regarding Beatty’s career along with that of 1950’s conservative culture and the so-called “sexual puritanism” of the era, “Rules Don’t Apply” is something deeper. It ruminates on Beatty’s own life and career and feels as if it comes from a personal place. If this is indeed Beatty’s swan song, it is a poignant note to go out on.
Though Beatty’s presence hangs over the entire film, he doesn’t really enter the story until the middle. We start off by meeting Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), an ambitious yet mild-mannered young man who moves to Hollywood and ends up working as a chauffeur for Hughes. Frank is assigned to drive around actresses who are also under contract with Hughes. One such up and comer is Marla Mabry (Lily Collins), a virgin Baptist beauty queen from Virginia who dreams of becoming a Hollywood starlet. As she arrives on the West Coast, Marla is quick to learn that the rules she’s used to adhering to do not necessarily apply in this new setting.
Cut to a budding romance between Frank and Marla that sets the rest of the story in motion. Their romance feels straight out of a film made in the era this story is set. It is a joy to watch. Both young performers share a wonderfully charming chemistry and excel both in the comedic and dramatic elements thrown at them. This is a romance that could easily play on TCM today. As in love as the two may be, employees under contract with Hughes are forbidden to engage in any romantic relations. While Frank and Marla do not personally know Hughes, his presence lingers over them just as he does over the film itself.
Hughes appears about 30 minutes into the film, and his presence commands the rest of the story. Beatty isn’t playing a version of Howard Hughes that we know. Instead, he uses him as a vessel for essentially playing himself. The previously mentioned parallels are magnified here as we see the man’s numerous eccentricities. As he does everything from engaging in crazy business dealings, to purchasing 90 gallons of banana nut ice cream, Beatty certainly plays the role with gusto. Some will find him to be a bit much, but it is important to remember just how “out there” the character itself is written to be. I personally found his performance a joy to behold and one of the year’s finest.
In terms of filmmaking, “Rules Don’t Apply” does have its share of minor issues here and there. The editing is choppy and episodic, a specific tone is never specified, and the two storylines don’t necessarily intertwine the way that they should. However, Beatty has always been a unique and unorthodox director. Even when one element doesn’t totally work, he has so much going on at the same time, that it is nearly impossible to criticize his work as a whole. The scale, scope, and personal investment are to be admired. As much as I enjoyed myself, there is no specific audience for this film. Old Hollywood fans will likely be bored by the business dealings Hughes finds himself in, while younger audiences will not have the time, patience, or knowledge to comprehend any of this. Yet for those willing to do their homework beforehand, there is potential for a rewarding experience here. Part of me thinks Beatty was going for initial confusion. This being his first directorial outing in 19 years, it comes as no surprise that many big names lined up to work with the Oscar-winning talent. Alec Baldwin, Paul Sorvino, Dabney Coleman, Candice Bergen, Matthew Broderick, Steve Coogan, Oliver Platt, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, and Beatty’s own wife Annette Bening make appearances in small supporting performances. As little as they may be featured, it is still nice to see actors who no longer lead their own films pop up even for a minute or two.
Since the Warren Beatty sensation hit its peak in the 1970’s, many contemporary audiences don’t necessarily realize how much of a “big deal” he was. After a career of films that include masterpieces such as “Reds,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “Bulworth,” “Shampoo,” and “Dick Tracy” to name a few, “Rules Don’t Apply” feels like a continuation of his knack for seeking out interesting and personal projects. While I do recognize the film’s issues, it is all a matter of perception in the end. The fact that Beatty was able to make a film such as this in the exact manner that he wanted to is an accomplishment in itself. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but a mid-level period piece from one of our cinematic legends deserves more than just a blind pass from the true cinephile community. This is one of my favorite films of the year for all it represents. Even if it doesn’t happen right away, I hope those who miss out now will come to rediscover this gem in years to come.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Warren Beatty’s energetic performance. The film’s look and feel.
THE BAD – Choppy editing and a story that, as personal as it is to its helmer, feels out of time.