Combustible Celluloid
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Haley Bennett, Candice Bergen, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Ed Harris, Megan Hilty, Oliver Platt, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, Amy Madigan, Taissa Farmiga
Written by: Warren Beatty, based on a story by Warren Beatty, Bo Goldman
Directed by: Warren Beatty
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements, and drug references
Running Time: 126
Date: 11/23/2016

Rules Don't Apply (2016)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Loose Hughes

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio already gave us a pretty essential Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator (2004), and the character has made appearances in many other fictional films, including Melvin and Howard (1980), Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), The Rocketeer (1991), Bettie Page: Dark Angel (2004), and The Hoax (2006). (Tommy Lee Jones even played him in a TV movie.) But there's something about Warren Beatty stepping into the famous, eccentric millionaire's shoes that feels right, and even comfortable.

Like Hughes, Beatty can be elusive, doesn't mind disappearing for awhile; this new movie is his first since the flop Town & Country (2001), and his first time directing since Bulworth (1998). And, though Beatty is not exactly an old-time movie star from the 1940s, he is close to being a living legend, Hollywood royalty, having made his big screen acting debut in Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass (1961).

So Rules Don't Apply is a big, cuddly Hollywood screwball comedy with a cup of romance and a dash of heart. Hughes (Beatty) is the movie's glue, but not its focus. That belongs to Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a beautiful Baptist girl from Virginia who wins a beauty contest and is put under contract by Hughes, with the future possibly of her starring in a movie. Marla has arrived with her Baptist mother (Annette Bening, making the most of a potentially dull role) in tow. Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is her driver, and though they are not supposed to fraternize, neither one of them has ever even seen Mr. Hughes, and, well, they're young and in Hollywood.

Ehrenreich recently stole the Coen Brothers' Hail, Caesar! — another old-fashioned Hollywood story — out from under many bigger stars, and he was also cast to fill Harrison Ford's considerable shoes in a new Han Solo/Star Wars film. He has an undeniably bright future. Unlike many handsome young stars, he has a definite personality; he feels like he has lived a life outside of a Los Angeles acting class. Collins is wondrously beautiful, with a definite Audrey Hepburn vibe — easy to spot in the promotional materials for her Snow White movie Mirror Mirror — but this is her first great role, one that allows her to use her comic skills, and to make her looks coyly appealing, rather than up-front daunting.

In any case, both Frank and Marla are soon to meet Mr. Hughes in a big way. Marla's first meeting is hilariously weird. Another of Mr. Hughes' drivers, Levar (Matthew Broderick), brings her into and out of a series of rooms, makes her wait, and strange things seem to be happening outside the frame. Finally a shadowy figure comes in. The lights are kept off. He's charming, but strange, and the visit is short, but exciting.

Eventually Marla's mother returns to Virginia, leaving Marla open to succumb to temptation. She and Frank are falling in love. She confesses to Frank that she's more of a songwriter than either an actress or a singer, and she plays him a lovely song, "Rules Don't Apply." But when she finds out that Frank has a girl he has already slept with back home, Marla considers him already "married" and therefore off limits. She is called in to meet Mr. Hughes another time, but she's upset and vulnerable and the encounter goes terribly wrong.

On the other hand, Frank grows closer to Mr. Hughes and becomes a trusted advisor. There are sudden airplane trips, demands for certain flavors of ice cream, and constant screenings of Hughes' first big motion picture, Hell's Angels (1930). There are aborted business meetings, and people kept waiting. Hughes worries that his staff or someone close to him will have him committed, so he schemes a marriage to protect himself.

Eventually things come to a head, a point at which these characters can't take any more of this zaniness. And though Beatty is a very fine motion picture director, even he can't keep up that level of energy for 126 minutes. He keeps it up for a long time, and it's a wonderful, zingy enthusiasm. But the story does require itself to burn itself out, and there's no way to tell that story without the burnout feeling like a bit of a letdown. The movie feels somewhat scraggly by the end, rumpled, like waking up after an all-nighter.

Credit must be given to Beatty's team of four editors, Robin Gonsalves, Leslie Jones (not the SNL star), Brian Scofield, and Billy Weber, some of whom have worked with Beatty before, and some of whom are new to the game. If you can remember back to the snappy, comic-strip-frame rhythm of Beatty's Dick Tracy (1990), you'll marvel that he manages that same kind of rhythm here.

The way in which scenes start and end becomes almost like a character in the story. Some scenes almost end on a half-beat, leaving a tingly anticipation or a nervous laugh at something left slightly undone. Some scenes are filled with yappy, rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, and others are marvelously, weirdly quiet. With the exception of the film overall being a bit too long, it's a master class in moment-by-moment flow.

Of course, Beatty assembles an all-star cast here, with big stars in small scenes, jumping at a chance to work with the legend. And they're all great in their own ways. Among many others, we have Martin Sheen, very touching as a put-upon Hughes man. Paul Schneider plays a character called "Miskin," who resembles Clifford Irving, the author of an infamous fake Hughes biography (see The Hoax, or Orson Welles's F for Fake).

Taissa Farmiga is very moving as Frank's girlfriend back home, who shows that she's not just something to be swept aside. Ed Harris and Amy Madigan are her parents, onscreen for just a few moments. Oliver Platt is hilarious as an airline man kept waiting for a meeting. Alec Baldwin is cool as a new Hughes hire, nonplussed about how he does business. And Steve Coogan is a colonel, looking a bit green during a crazy plane ride.

Weirdly, Rules Don't Apply is close in spirit to Damien Chazelle's upcoming La La Land, with the possible exception that Rules Don't Apply is closer to a throwback and La La Land feels like something moving forward. Yet they are both rooted in a specific Hollywood kind of nostalgia, which is beautiful on the surface, but a little tarnished underneath.

It's as if Beatty himself wanted to tangle with his own legend here, comparing himself to Hughes. He's successful, powerful, a living legend, but he's not perfect, and he's getting older (79 as of this writing). Hughes ends the film not quite getting everything he wanted, and maybe Beatty has his regrets as well. Maybe this is an attempt to show how a legendary movie star is actually a warm-blooded, flawed, human.

Movies Unlimtied