Rules Don’t Apply
Directed by Warren Beatty
Opens November 23
With Rules Don’t Apply, 79-year-old Warren Beatty directs his fifth feature film, officially tying the number of Dobie Gillis episodes he appeared in. That’s scarcely less than the seven feature films Beatty has acted in during my lifetime, four of which he directed; at this point, Terrence Malick has become a significantly more prolific presence on the cinematic landscape of the past forty years. There’s a kind of poetic strangeness, then, that Beatty’s long-gestating passion project has him playing Howard Hughes—and ceding the spotlight, at least for a while, to two younger performers.
Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), the “Apple Blossom Queen” of her Midwest hometown, meets Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) because they’re newbies in a network of drivers and starlets hired by Hughes in late-50s Los Angeles, a labyrinthine crisscross of chauffeuring, cattle calls, and auditions/screen tests that don’t always, or even often, materialize. Frank is a driver who wants a moment alone with Mr. Hughes to sell him on a real estate deal, while Marla is a songwriter who isn’t sure if her talent extends to acting and singing, but wants to find out. Romance between drivers and starlets is forbidden by the big boss, and for a while that doesn’t much matter because both Frank and Marla are so squeaky clean.
Ehrenreich, with his romantic squint, and Collins, affecting a gee-whiz moxie and as a self-described square (the movie is never condescending about their churchiness), are adorable together, and so defiantly sweet that their romance (developing whether they want it to or not) is funny without throwing out a lot of jokes. (One, mordant and unintentional, has their mutual enthusiasm over a strange, antisocial billionaire spilling over into idolatry: “I think Howard Hughes should be president!” Marla exclaims, as the 2016 audience shifts uncomfortably in their seats.) The chaste chemistry between the young leads continues to fizz even as Beatty cuts his scenes together abruptly, like he had to remove ten or fifteen minutes in tiny, constant increments. The pace is vaguely screwball, but with a weird stuttery backspin.
In the early going, Beatty’s Hughes is a shadowy figure, literally: He’s not onscreen for almost half an hour and he’s not seen in full light until about 45 minutes in. When he emerges as a TV dinner-eating, saxophone-playing, Oliver Platt-vexing accidental smoothie, he throws a wrench into the movie’s romance with vigor. It’s poignant to see Beatty, former handsome young man, give Hughes a sense of melancholy about the loss of youth. This version of Hughes is too daffy to really put the moves on Marla, as suggestive as he may seem—and she’s charmed by him anyway.
For a movie contrasting youthful optimism with elderly hubris (Matthew Broderick plays a long-suffering associate of Hughes, neither so restrained with the starlets nor ambitious enough to make his escape), Rules Don’t Appy gets weirdly jarring and uncomfortable when time starts slipping forward. The story’s transition into melodrama feels era-appropriate—of course the starry-eyed lovers can’t stay in their midpoint clinch, and of course Collins will croon her titular song (!) not once but twice—but not especially adroit. The characters’ aging (often largely offscreen) isn’t very convincing, and Frank’s growing closeness to his boss’s weird world shunts Collins offscreen, threatening to turn Rules Don’t Apply into a genuine Howard Hughes biography. Instead of cutting off abruptly, scenes drag on.
Much of the movie is charming and funny, but by the end it feels elusive, particularly when trying to figure where Beatty is going with this pet project. Per Rules Don’t Apply, Hughes spent a lot of time with one foot in the movie world while continually distracted by his true love: airplanes, and planespotting minutiae. The movie isn’t indifferent, but it does eventually succumb to that distracted quality. What, I wonder, is Beatty’s airplane?