Warren Beatty is a Hollywood maverick, and his new film Rules Don’t Apply is proof enough. The Oscar-winner has attempting to make a Howard Hughes biopic for the last 40 years. Now, it is finally seen the light.
Despite some attention over Beatty’s comeback, the movie is tanking at the box office. The plot is intriguing, but the story struggles under its own weight. It begs the question of what went wrong?
Rules Don’t Apply begins in 1964 with a press conference about Howard Hughes. We flashback to Hollywood circa 1958. Aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) goes to Hollywood with her mother Lucy (Annette Bening) to do a screen test. Their chauffeur is young Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), who aspires to work in business.
After weeks of waiting, Marla is nervous when the screen test does not happen. During this time, she and Frank grow closer, but their contracts prohibit any relationship with other employees. When she finally meets Hughes, the scene consists of an impromptu dinner and conversation, but it leads to her getting a screen test. Ultimately, Marla and Frank begin a relationship, which they must keep secret.
Meanwhile, Hughes starts to worry about his empire, because some are questioning his mental state. In order to keep everything, he decides to find a woman who’ll agree to marry him. Naturally, this results in Hughes popping the question to Marla. Now, Marla has to make a decision about what she really wants.
Collins does a good job as Marla, who goes from naive to jaded. She also gets to showcase her musical skills by singing a ballad titled “Rules Don’t Apply.” Ehrenreich has some nice scenes showing Frank’s conflicted side. His wrestling with choosing Marla or his long-term girlfriend is one of the prominent subplots.
Beatty’s larger-than-life presence as Hughes hangs over the movie. Indeed, his voice can be heard early on, but he doesn’t appear until half an hour into the film. At 79, Beatty is hardly believable playing a man who is two decades younger than he is. Yet the actor has fun as Hughes, and he’s able to go from eccentric to serious. We don’t get much exploration of what makes him tick, but it is implied his lonely childhood had a hand in shaping who he is.
The rest of the cast does nicely in their roles. Matthew Broderick provides a weary, frantic turn as Levar Mathis. Martin Sheen delivers a subtle performance as Hughes’ right-hand man Noah Dietrich. His decision to quit at the film’s half-way point is saddening to watch, because he has stuck with Hughes through good and bad times. Annette Bening brings a maternal, worried presence as Lucy, and it makes one wish she would appear on the big screen more often.
As a biopic, the movie is fairly accurate to the life of Hughes, but it does take some liberties with the historical record. For instance, Hughes’ near-fatal plane crash moves up from 1944 to 1958. Whereas Martin Scorsese’s film uses this as a set-piece, Beatty has it occur offscreen and cuts to Hughes in hospital. The 1947 Senate hearings are similarly moved to the 1950s. It’s as if Beatty wants to cover the gamut of Hughes’ career.
Where Rules Don’t Apply struggles is deciding what it’s trying to be. At times, the movie feels like a love story, but it veers into a drama at others. As a result, the tone goes from serious to melodramatic to comedic. Beatty forgets the main rule of moviemaking: having a story to tell.
Rules Don’t Apply has some good performances, but these don’t save the plot from its shortcomings. It is unfortunate that Beatty’s film isn’t drawing the masses to the box office. Perhaps he waited too long in bringing the story to life. One can only hope this is not his swan song.