Now playing at mostly empty theaters across the country:
RULES DON’T APPLY (Dir. Warren Beatty, 2016)
RULES DON’T APPLY (Dir. Warren Beatty, 2016)
Beatty first had the idea for the film in the early ‘70s when he found himself staying in the same hotel as the famously reclusive billionaire, but it didn’t have a screenplay until the ‘90s when he drafted Academy Award-winning screenwriter Bo Goldman to co-write what was then titled “Hughes.” It was intended to be Beatty’s follow-up to his last big hit, DICK TRACY, but things didn’t work out and the project was shelved.
Since then, it’s been in development hell, and many have thought it would never be made. Yet, here it is – just in time for awards season, now called RULES DON’T APPLY, starring Beatty as Hughes, and featuring a fabulous supporting cast including Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Beatty’s wife of 24 years, Annette Bening.
Actually, Ehrenreich and Collins are the real stars, as Beatty’s Hughes is largely in the background here, sometimes even in the darkness of sparsely lit hotel rooms or holed up in a curtained bed.
It’s 20 minutes before Hughes even enters the picture as we learn about Collins’ fictitious character, Marla Mabrey, who has come to Hollywood in 1958 to make it in show business. Marla signs a contract with RKO, in which she is provided with a posh house, and a chauffeur named Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich). Both Marla and Frank are waiting for a chance to meet their employer – she about when she will get to do a screentest, while he wants to get Hughes to invest in a real estate deal involving housing in Mulholland Canyon.
When Hughes finally makes his entrance, it’s in the aforementioned darkness of a Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow, in which the nervous Marla has a prepared spiel, but Hughes ignores her questions.
Frank also gets his meeting with Hughes over burgers at the end of the Long Beach dock where Hughes’ ginormous flying boat, the Spruce Goose, is stationed, in the middle of the night.
Despite having a fiancée (Taissa Farmiga) back home in Fresno, Frank has the hots for Marla and things get heated between them when she sings him a song she wrote called “Rules Don’t Apply.” The couple engages in a make-out session, smashing a glass table in the process. However, Frank’s coworker Levar Mathis (Broderick) interrupts and ends their lustful moment by showing up at Marla’s house to drive her to an engagement.
Meanwhile, the paranoid Hughes fears that he’ll be committed to a mental hospital so he figures that if he gets married the powers that be can’t put him away without his wife’s approval. When Marla sings her “Rules Don’t Apply” song to Hughes, it triggers the same smitten reaction, but this time her tryst gets consummated.
I bet Beatty thinks that the song, an original composition by Lorraine Feather and Eddie Arkin, is sure to get an Oscar Nomination, but, despite it not being bad, I'll be really surprised if it does.
It’s weird to say that a movie that has been in the works in one form or another for decades is underwritten, but it certainly is the case. Beatty nails the collection of ticks that Hughes was famous for including the habit of repeating the same phrase over, (though Leonardo DiCaprio did that better in Martin Scorsese’s far superior Hughes biopic THE AVIATOR), and his performance is one of the best things about the movie, but it’s in service of a extremely lightweight storyline.
It’s easy to see why Beatty was attracted to Hughes’ persona, as Beatty himself is an eccentric, reclusive, control freak. In Peter Biskind’s 2012 biography “Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America,” journalist/politico Bill Bradley speaks of Beatty’s original concept being one that “could be a movie that really explains power and money in America.” That’s not what we have here at all. What this is a drawn out, largely dull tale of a love triangle that oddly resembles what Woody Allen did better in his period piece CAFÉ SOCIETY last summer.
Beatty’s co-writer Bo Goldman who once called himself “the world’s greatest living expert on Howard Hughes,” and who penned the also Hughes-related 1980 comedy drama MELVIN AND HOWARD, wrote a version of the screenplay 20 years ago that Beatty appears to have rewritten and rewritten until whatever spark that may have been there is gone.
RULES DON’T APPLY strains and fails to be an amusing and charming romp, but there’s a severe lack of chemistry between its leads, and an indefinable purpose to the proceedings. It's a passion project without any passion.
There are a number of stylish touches that I enjoyed, such as the use of archival footage in establishing shots and in rear projection driving scenes, and the film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, but that is just the pretty packaging for a shallow, insightless premise.
At the very least, if this is indeed the swan song that Beatty has claimed, even though it bombed, it’s still a better movie to go out on than TOWN & COUNTRY. In many ways, that’s all it really needed to be.