Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty’s first film in over a decade, is a beguiling misfire that never seems to justify itself. It’s a film in search of an identity and cohesion– Is it a cinematic event as rare as a Bigfoot sighting? A vanity project that exemplifies the glitzy, yet simultaneously shallow Hollywood era during Beatty’s claim to fame? A screwball romp about sexual politics? There’s a certain amount of exciting arrogance on display here in how it tackles an assortment of conflicting themes with absolute gusto, but that cinematic swagger is undone by baffling editorial decisions. Four editors are credited on the final product and you can feel the post production tug-of-war bleed through the screen. Scenes are trashed apart and obliviously inserted together in zippy, episodic fashion that displays no regard for pacing. As a result, many of the already muddled ideas such as spiritual devotion are glossed over. This is a movie only a Hollywood legend is capable of creating, which makes it all the more surprising that a Hollywood legend did in fact create something so off-key.
Despite a relatively thin filmography, Beatty had earned an unprecedented level of respect and is viewed as the epitome of a classic movie star. In this aspect, Rules Don’t Apply reads autobiographical as it frolics back to the late 1950s and floats to the rhythm of its own drum. With big dreams, small-town Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) arrives in Hollywood under the contract of reclusive millionaire and director Howard Hughes. Marla’s Methodist valet driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is also under contact and employed by Hughes, but has ironically never met the private eccentric. With trepidation, Frank is engaged to the overly religious Sarah (Taissa Farmiga with three scenes and two lines), while fostering aspirations of real estate (only mentioned when the script finds it convenient). Predictably but also earnestly, an connection between the two young dreamers blossoms under under the weight of temptation. Alden does his best Leonardo DiCaprio impression and we witness early traces of movie stardom when his charisma is ushered, but genuine chemistry fails to ignite with Lily Collins, who is all over the place. Collins can’t quite sell the jarring characterizations of the script but to be fair, not even the most seasoned performers could suffice any better. This growing infatuation is made even more complicated by the second act entrance of Howard Hughes, which causes the movie to burst at the seams.
Animated with broad strokes and nonsensical stammering, Beatty inadvertently treats the antics and mental deficiencies of Hughes as comic relief. Whether Hughes is dodging government officials or embarks on a quest in search of banana nut Ice cream, the movie gradually mirrors the deteriorating schizophrenia of his mindset. What should be fun detours and non-sequitur become the main focus of the film leaving all else unrelated to relegate in the background.
I was never bored because it’s produced in such a deliciously husky and old-fashioned way. The attentive attention to period detail and smoky shadows and warm lighting enveloped me while the endless parade of A-list cameos (Ed Harris literally has about 57 seconds of screen-time) kept me entertained. It just never engaged me beyond surface level. More than anything, it just left me baffled. [C]