By Will Ashton (Three Beers) –
Combine Howard Hughes, an eccentric, reclusive billionaire and jack of all trades in the world of aviation and entertainment, and Warren Beatty, a meticulous, elusive actor/director absent throughout the past 15 years, and you’d seemingly have the perfect combo. Rules Don’t Apply, Beatty’s longtime passion project based on Hughes’ unusual life of grandeur, as well as his final days laced in social alienation, perplexing anxieties, and longstanding mistrust in the outside world, can be seen as both a return-to-the-spotlight for Beatty, the actor, and perhaps the final hurrah for Beatty, the director. Maybe even the final hurrah for both, in fact. The 79-year-old’s long-promised cinematic return is, at once, laced in renewed purpose and bittersweet sorrow, a sprawling work of persistent ambition and creative madness that doesn’t necessarily know what it wants to say, so it says a bunch of things at once. That makes it fairly appropriate as a Hughes’ biopic, it seems, if still not necessarily a satisfying, consistent or investing one.
Lighthearted unless it’s not, bitter unless it’s sweet, simple unless it’s complicated, there are no clean cuts here. While that occasionally plays in its favor, it often results in a messy, oversized shrug of an epic, one with lots of deep-seated admiration for its subject, but never enough structure, clear focus, or coherence to make it worth the hassle. Knowing it’s likely Beatty’s cinematic farewell only makes it sadder. There’s little denying Beatty’s inspiration and talent, particularly when playing the infamous womanizer himself, but it fails to capture the charm it wants to ensue so eagerly. Sometimes rules apply for a reason or two.
Though it’s often Hughes that looms heavily over every presiding incident, the young, dapper, bright-faced near-lovers Maria Marbrey (Lily Collins) and Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) are the ones at the center. In 1958 Hollywood, one is a wannabe actress hoping to get her big break, while the other is a driver told to take various people where they might please across Hollywood, according to Hughes’ wishes. Both are on the big man’s dime, yet neither have seen a single glimpse of the larger-than-life figure in passing, let alone met him in person.
They’re equally nervous and excited about the prospects of finally meeting him, seeing if the legends told around town are hold any truth, and, like most people around the world, they’re filled with questions. None of which seem to be answered when they both end up making his acquaintance, however. In fact, if anything, growing intimate with such a wacky, off-the-cuff weirdo only raises more questions over time. As both of them get to know him more… shall we say, fondly, I suppose, these two find themselves separated by his actions, yet always connected specifically because of him. Nobody said Hollywood came with a rulebook! You know, because the whole “rules don’t…” OK, whatever.
I give props to Beatty for not making a safe, banal, deathly familiar, utterly conventional Hughes biopic. Clearly inspired by his erratic, sometimes nonsensical behavior, Rules Don’t Apply is at times appropriately flushed with varying tones, styles, and aesthetics. One moment is lighthearted and comedic, the next is deathly serious. One scene will try mixing the two, and then another has a tone all its own. Even when approaching 80, it’s clear Beatty, the storyteller, is still very indebted to the age of New Hollywood. As an actor, he fits into the role of Hughes like a well-worn glove, comfortably showcasing both the light and the dark, depraved nature of Hughes’ character in equal measures. He makes the role all his own, while still staying true to the imposing, deeply mysterious personality he embodies wholeheartedly. He’s matched only by Collins, a rising actress with great personality and range that oftentimes effortlessly brings out the sad humanity lying underneath Maria, even when it isn’t always apparent in Beatty’s script. Both gentle and outstanding, her performance echoes Old Hollywood while promising a bright future.
Thanks to Beatty’s intense attention to detail in time and place, there’s hardly a single period attribute that isn’t gorgeously examined or carefully realized, making every sunny day in Hollywood positively radiate on-screen. Even when the material doesn’t always back it up, Rules Don’t Apply is a lavish, beautiful looking picture. It would be hard to deny Beatty’s extensive love and appreciation for the old ’50s. He nails that specifically more often than not thanks to his exceptional team of art directors and set designers, and the pain-staking care for everything and anything in this movie can be seen in all in glory, for what’s it worth.
Unfortunately, for as much as Beatty cares deeply about this material, it seems like the sheer scope of it all got the better of him. With four different credited editors attached, Robin Gonsalves, Leslie Jones, Brian Scofield, and Billy Weber, Rules Don’t Apply is typically a frantic, scattershot mess of a film, in ways more inappropriate than not. Hastily jumping between scene after scene, minute by minute, it is a disorienting and maddening viewing experience to a fault. It lacks a coherent sense of what it is trying to say, and how it wants to say it effectively. Even some of the scenes that do work, namely one particularly heated exchange Beatty as Hughes has with his reliable Bulworth co-star Oliver Platt, seem too busy and rushed for their own good. It’s hard to savor anything in this new movie. With Beatty so eager to move to each passing scene, he only rarely gives you a chance to let it all wash over you, appreciating its scale and scope for all its worth. He simply has too much he wants to do, too much he wants to say or contain. Maybe there’s a looser, more enjoyable three/three-and-a-half hour cut somewhere. In its current two hour presentation, however, it’s sluggish, indecisive, and tedious to the point of exhaustion.
It’s only more concerning when that rushed, hasty feeling interjects with the tender performances on-screen. While Collins, as I mentioned before, fares pretty well, future Han Solo Ehrenreich doesn’t hold up quite as well. His natural, near-perfect charisma, which was utilized so perfectly in Hail, Caesar! earlier this year, is often muted in light of all the messiness found in the film around him. He doesn’t falter necessarily, but you can tell he’s vying to do more, ready to push himself farther, and Beatty rarely, if ever, gives him room to shine, especially if he’s also sharing the screen. It’s a pity, because Ehrenreich seems perfectly cast in this specific kind of hunky-but-reserved role, yet doesn’t get ample time to prove it to us.
There are tons of other supporting roles filling, and sometimes clogging, Rules Don’t Apply, including Martin Sheen, Haley Bennett (The Girl on the Train), Megan Hilty (NBC’s Smash), Paul Schneider, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Steve Coogan, Taissa Farmiga, and Beatty’s wife Annette Bening, but only Matthew Broderick, as Hughes’ increasingly-annoyed assistant Levar Mathis, and the aforementioned Platt make a lasting impression, let alone are remembered before the end credits roll. Beatty, like Steven Spielberg, knows how to fill out his roaster, but if he doesn’t give those people enough time to make it count, what’s the point? It’s nice to see everyone get a chance to work with Beatty for what-might-well-be the last time, but every near-cameo appearance is more wasted than the last, and I guess that’s the running theme here.
It’s hard to deny Beatty’s intense interest in this project, but without clear focus to make that intent and motivation a reality, it results in a whimpering, out-of-tune (potential) final note for Beatty, an actor/writer/director who should not be forgotten anytime soon, and especially not as he has been in latter years, absent from the spotlight and silver screen. His influence will still be felt for decades, but that doesn’t make Rules Don’t Apply any less disappointing. As a general rule of thumb, though, I guess you should always expect the worst, but that doesn’t make the wait any less unearned or squandered.
Rules Don’t Apply (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time someone says “rules don’t apply.” Take Two: if they sing it.
Take a Drink: for every recognizable celebrity and/or actor that pops up on screen.
Take a Drink: every time someone drives an automobile.
Take a Drink: every time Hughes does something/says something crazy and/or nonsensical.
Take a Drink: every time a plane is shown and/or mentioned.