Rules Don't Apply (2016) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements, and drug references
Running Time: 126 min.
Cast: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Oliver Platt, Candice Bergen, Alec Baldwin, Paul Schneider
Small role: Paul Sorvino, Haley Bennett, Chace Crawford, Taissa Farmiga, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Dabney Colman, Steve Coogan
Director: Warren Beatty
Screenplay: Warren Beatty
Review published November 29, 2016
Warren Beatty's (Bulworth, Dick Tracy) first motion picture work in about fifteen years sees him a bit rusty with Rules Don't Apply, an earnest but inconsistent attempt at a comedy with dramatic undertones that feels like a tale of two halves. Its first half is a frothy and jaunty affair, bolstered by a jovial spirit and winsome characters we enjoy following, even if what we're seeing isn't exactly substantial. Alas, there's the second half, in which Beatty takes all of those characters and makes them unlikeable, making their exploits tedious to follow, and their attempts to find peace and happiness hollow and unconvincing.
What Beatty, who has been mulling over making this project for decades, presents here is a mostly fictionalized story ('Never check an interesting fact' is a Howard Hughes quote that opens the movie, that, ironically, may not be a Hughes quote) that involves a real-life figure in billionaire Howard Hughes, though most of the action involves two young associates of Hughes. Set mostly in the late 1950s, we follow the attempts by a young, virginal, devout Baptist pageant winner named Marla Mabrey (Collins, Love Rosie), who travels with her mother to Los Angeles in order to become an actress for aviation mogul Howard Hughes, who owns a movie studio (RKO) and regularly grooms young women like her to become stars in his employ.
Marla gets on the payroll and is soon driven around by a new chauffer in Hughes' fleet, Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich, Hail Caesar), a young man studying economics who wants to also climb the ranks by making a good impression with the reclusive Hughes, who he sees as a sort of mentor on how to be successful in business and real estate. Things get complicated when the already engaged Frank begins to develop feelings for Marla, something also not allowed by Hughes' employees to do. Coupled with Hughes' declining mental stability, all parties find themselves in unenviable positions if they wish to proceed to success in life, career, and love.
Rules Don't Apply has an odd comic sensibility, wryly presented as its main auteur, Beatty, generally tends to be in the way he delivers his somewhat daffy humor in real life. It's a bit sloppy in its approach to tone, though it is generally watchable, so long as no weight is applied to the proceedings to make us have to take things seriously. Alas, staving off the drama completely isn't in the cards, as there is a point where major developments happen for the characters that push the tone away from the whimsical delivery into one where it fails to connect in its humor any longer. There are whole scenes dedicated to Hughes' demands for gallons upon gallons of banana nut ice cream, only to change his mind on it on a whim sometime later. Meanwhile, a cavalcade of actors who are either friends of Beatty's, or those who want to be, fill roles that require little perceptible talent that one wonders why they bothered.
To say there are better films one could be watching out in the theaters at the time that Rules Don't Apply is in a limited release is a given, especially as we are in the middle of Oscar season, which is something I highly doubt that Beatty's film will be seriously vying for once all is said and done. However, it isn't even in the running for best Howard Hughes film, easily surpassed for both entertainment value and artistry by the likes of Martin Scorsese's The Aviator and Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard. This film's Hughes is off-kilter but largely benign in his obliviousness, lurking around in dimly lit rooms eating TV dinners and generally being a bit paranoid about losing control of his business due to unsound mind, as well as what his bevy of starlets might be doing at any given time.
The main problem with Rules Don't Apply is that it jettisons the one story with some chemistry, of Marla and Frank's blossoming relationship under the watchful eye of Howard Hughes (for those wondering, these characters are completely fictional), for one in which Hughes becomes the lead role during the film's second half, where the story fragments into a handful or threads, each less interesting than the last. I'd go so far as to say that every scene that follows the introduction of the lovely title song is an especially bad one, as if Beatty stumbles with the narrative and then has no way to stop himself from letting the turbulence overtake him, plummeting like Hughes' Spruce Goose might had its pilot tried to elevate it beyond its capacity for flight.
Side note: The PG-13 rating is quite generous from the MPAA, as it uses an F-bomb in a sexual way and features two scenes of sexuality that includes evidence of premature ejaculation, as well as simulated sexual congress -- not that many under 17 years old would venture to the theaters to see this.
©2016 Vince Leo