Warren Beatty returns to the big screen with a Howard Hughes-centric passion project marred by a poor story that never properly flies.
Watching Warren Beatty’s directorial comeback Rules Don’t Apply is a sad experience. After over forty years of attempts the legendary actor/director’s passion project is as much a lame-duck as Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose. Naysayers of her talent won’t be able to ignore Lily Collins’ superlative performance, but everything else is undercooked, half-thought and damn near incomprehensible.
A love story blossoms between Howard Hughes’ (Beatty) driver (Alden Ehrenreich) and an ingenue (Collin). But the course of love doesn’t run smooth when Hughes wants the actress for himself.
A fun homage to studio-era cinema could be cobbled from Rules Don’t Apply’s disparate pieces. Beatty stars, directs and wrote the script, but can’t seem to figure out what story he wants to tell. An Old Hollywood romance between a starlet and a chauffeur; even a film about said starlet falling for Howard Hughes has potential if told on its own. When combined and forced to coexist it makes for a tedious 126-minute affair. As much as I adore classic cinema, and homages to the works of the ’40s, the old masters just don’t have the same spark. This is similar to Peter Bogdanovich’s equally underwhelming She’s Funny That Way, which also focuses on an amateur actress struggling with fame.
Speaking of, our actress is the film’s brightest star. Lily Collins isn’t someone I’ve ever praised. Mired in YA adaptations and kiddie fare, she hasn’t found the right niche to place herself. As the freshly scrubbed Apple Blossom Queen, Marla Mabrey, Collins hits all the right notes. With her messy ponytail and school-girl outfit she embodies the virginal babe in Hollywood. She navigates being one in Hughes’ stable of starlets, alongside a wasted Haley Bennett (pre-Girl on the Train). Poised to remain a lust object, Collins’ ability to conjure comedy with a drunken “Hello” is Katharine Hepburn-level funny. Even crooning the film’s title song that supposedly has all the sex appeal of “Kissed By a Rose,” she’s wonderful. It’s a shame she’s not paired with actors able to stand up to her level.Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Collins works best reacting to Hughes’ eccentricities rather than Ehrenreich’s bland proclamations of love. Collins and Ehrenreich’s lack of chemistry isn’t helped by how quickly the script rushes them into romance. They’re forced together by being in the same age bracket more than anything.
The “rules” that aren’t applied involve questionable ethics from grown men. Unlike an homage to the Golden Age, this is a tribute to the off-stage shenanigans of the Golden Age stars. Matthew Broderick, as Hughes’ right-hand man, acts like he’s in the process of committing a crime, telling each girl he can help them go out on their own. Marla’s referred to as “the Virgin Marla,” which gives her character a Lolita-esque persona that’s creepy, as opposed to funny. Beatty apparently watched The Last of Robin Hood while writing.
Like every major plot device, characters reiterate changes happen, as years, off-screen. The rapid-fire editing cuts scenes down to barely a minute, leading to an endless staccato pace. Every scene means three months has passed. When Frank tells Marla she’s changed, it feels like nothing more than a haircut has happened, let alone a lifetime. This truncated timeline also leaves the film floundering for a plot to explain this time progression. Characters, like Annette Bening as Marla’s mother, come and go with little impact; events and conversations take place that possess no reason to exist. A child’s third-act reveal turns everything into a soap-opera with a grossly unearned happy ending.
As far as Ehrenreich and Beatty are concerned, they’re as flat as can be. Beatty gives a decent performance as Hughes, but it amounts to him sticking a fedora on his head and calling himself Hughes. Moments of OCD-esque behavior – repetition, a compulsion for banana-nut ice-cream – are examined more intricately in The Aviator. Hughes amounts to little more than name recognition, akin to George Washington in George Washington Slept Here; sad considering that the subplot of Hughes coming out of hiding to refute an “authorized” biography is worth telling. As for Ehrenreich, all of the charisma he’s shown in the past is missing. Frank is a dull character played dully. Transient characters played by Oliver Platt, Taissa Farmiga and Alec Baldwin, to name a few, pass by like ships in the night.
The “rules don’t apply” to anyone here, so the result is a free-for-all. If this was Beatty’s passion project it’s easy to see why forty years amassed before Hollywood took a chance. Rules Don’t Apply, a title Beatty loves so much it’s quoted and sung, is one of the year’s most confusing films; confusing in that a studio thought it made sense. Beatty’s directorial flair is present, but his script is asinine and underdeveloped. The acting, outside of Collins who is darling, is flat and inefficient. The love has definitely died.