‘Rules Don’t Apply’ Review: Warren Beatty’s Strange, Uneven Howard Hughes Biopic
A Howard Hughes biopic by Warren Beatty sounds pretty interesting. Any portrayal of the eccentric recluse and his ventures into Hollywood are enough to pique my interest. But Rules Don’t Apply is hardly a biopic about the billionaire. Instead Beatty’s first directorial effort since 1998’s Bulworth is an uninteresting love story full of uneven comedy, a creepy sex scene, an incident of premature ejaculation, and a song Lily Collins never stops singing. The result is one very strange movie that’s only sort of about Howard Hughes.
Rules Don’t Apply opens with Hughes hidden in a hotel bedroom listening to a teleconference about a fake autobiography – the real-life Clifford Irving hoax. Then we flash back to 1958 when Collins’ Marla Mabrey, a young starlet and virginal Southern Baptist, arrives in Los Angeles from Virginia. One of Hughes’ drivers, Frank Forbes (a very charming Alden Ehrenreich), takes Marla and her protective religious mother Lucy (Annette Bening) to one of Hughes’ many Hollywood homes. Marla, along with 20 other eager girls, live in these lavish homes waiting to meet Hughes, shoot their screen tests, and get their big break.
Hughes’ involvement in Hollywood and relations with young actresses is one of the more fascinating stories I’d love to see explored, but it hardly gets much screen time and most of the young actresses (one of which is played by The Girl on the Train‘s Haley Bennet) are barely featured. Beatty wastes even more opportunities with his supporting cast, who shine in some of the film’s best moments. Bening’s 1950s Baptist is the gem of the first half of the movie; she may have limited scenes, but she doesn’t waste a moment of any of them. There’s other good performances from Matthew Broderick as Hughes’ schmoozing assistant, Alec Baldwin as Hughes’ lawyer, Steve Coogan as a panicked pilot, and Oliver Platt as a frazzled businessman, plus minor appearances by Ed Harris, Candice Bergen, and Martin Sheen. It’s a shame Beatty wastes such a great supporting ensemble.
Rules Don’t Apply glosses over so many characters and half-executed storylines that it’s hard to get a grasp on what this film is really about. First it charts a romance between Marla and Frank, then pivots into a weird love triangle with Hughes in a dramatically over-the-top and uncomfortable sex scene where a drunk Marla seduces an aloof, mopey Hughes. It’s a creepy moment, mainly because Hughes yells at his assistant for inviting the wrong girl to his room (he wanted another M.M., Marilyn Monroe), then proceeds to sleep with her anyway because, why not, she’s young and drunk and desperate! Then Rules Don’t Apply abandons that story to skip ahead in an hour-long montage that finds a paranoid Hughes moving from Las Vegas to London to Puerto Rico. (It might not have actually been an hour, but gosh this movie felt painfully long.)
Eventually (and unfortunately) the film circles back to the love story between Marla and Frank. These two have hardly any chemistry, and Collins’ Marla is the most forgettable character in this movie. She’s supposed to be sensible and self-respecting, unlike the other girls. She’s an exception because, you know, the rules don’t apply to her, a line that’s said at least three times in this movie. We get it. (I have a rule that should be applied: If characters say the title of your movie more than once you better change the title of your movie.) Marla is also supposed to charm Frank and Hughes into falling in love with her, but I didn’t buy it. She woos them both by performing a song she wrote, a song that is so cringe-worthy I thought it had to be a joke.
There are some interesting elements in Rules Don’t Apply, mainly thanks to Beatty’s performance, his first in 15 years. Instead of a tragic look at the troubled recluse, Beatty has a much lighter approach to Hughes. He depicts him with a cheerful sense of lunacy, highlighting the capricious antics, drug addiction, and idiosyncrasies behind the real-life figure. As the director, co-writer, and actor, Beatty captures that well in the small details, from the tin-foil covered TV dinners he eats at the Beverly Hills Hotel to a scene where Hughes suddenly jolts up mid-conversation to play the saxophone. This guy is strange and alarming, but Beatty finds the comedy in that.
And while Beatty's jokes aren't actually funny, I appreciated how he finds the humorous side of his character's drug-addled mania. In one sequence Beatty makes his employees buy every batch of Banana Nut ice cream in the country. The next day he shouts that he’s sick of Banana Nut; now he wants vanilla. That constant madness, and seeing how far Beatty and Hughes will take it, is the most entertaining part off the film.
Rules Don’t Apply could have been an insightful look at a tragic, troubled figure. Instead Beatty made a conventional romance with lead characters we hardly care about. It’s forgettable story that will leave you with one thing you won’t be able to get out of your head: A very bad song.