With Rules Don't Apply, Hollywood legend Warren Beatty returns to the director’s chair for the first time since his prophetic political comedy Bulworth (1998). As a writer/producer/director—Heaven Can Wait (1978), Reds (1981), Dick Tracy (1990), in additional to Bulworth—Beatty’s talents fall short of greatness, but the pictures he has shepherded into existence (he produced Bugsy, Ishtar, Shampoo, and his one great film Bonnie and Clyde) are always sharp, engaging, and well worth seeing. This makes it all the more disappointing that after such a long absence from the screen—both in front of and behind the camera—Beatty’s latest picture is such an incoherent mess.
The filmmaker/moviestar plays legendary eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes in this fictional romantic-comedy-drama set within the orbit of Hughes’ real life during the late 50s and early 60s (though key dates and names are changed). Beatty’s depiction of Hughes’s famously obsessive-compulsive ticks and bizarre obsessions is mildly intriguing and occasional amusing, but offers no real insight into the man or what drove him. That’s probably not the point since, despite his large amount of screen time, Hughes is really a supporting player in this story. Like My Week with Marilyn (2011) or Me and Orson Welles (2008), Rules Don't Apply tells the story of ordinary individuals whose lives are changed when they come in contact with a famous, larger-than-life personality.
Lily Collins plays a young wannabe actress named Marla Mabrey brought to Tinsel-town under contract to Hughes—who was a movie mogul as well as a famous aviator and industrialist. Marla, who looks like a buttoned up version of the young Liz Taylor, is assigned a driver named Frank Forbes, a young man with big dreams also in the recent employ of Mr. Hughes. Alden Ehrenreich, who starred this same year in the similarly themed (and similarly disappointing) period Hollywood comedy Hail, Caesar!, plays Frank. These two young leads have some chemistry, but it takes a long time to warm up. And Frank never becomes very interesting or sympathetic. In addition to the three leads, the movie is chock full of celebrity appearances. Some of this all-star casting works well. Matthew Broderick brings depth to a prominent but underwritten role and Candice Bergen does an agreeable minor turn as Hughes’ secretary. But most are cameos that do little more than distract.
The picture is atrociously edited. Scenes abruptly stop and start with no sense of timing or rhythm. The abundance of sloppy looping, and lines obviously dubbed to cover cuts and narrative jumps, is painfully awkward. Most disappointing is the chintzy-looking photography by Caleb Deschanel. How the legendary cinematographer of The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, and The Natural could make this idealized re-creation of old Hollywood look so unromantic is as much of a mystery to me as how the even more talented Roger Deakins achieved the same failure working in the same milieu for Hail, Caesar! [I’d blame it on digital technology were it not for the fact that this same year Vittorio Storaro shot Woody Allen’s similarly set Hollywood period piece Café Society with digital cameras, and that film looked terrific.]
Worse than all its technical flaws, Rules Don't Apply doesn’t seem to know if it’s a screwball comedy or some kind of genuine biopic. It contains precious few laughs and seems uninterested in the facts of Hughes’ life apart from their use as a setting for this inconsequential and too oft told tale of coming-of-age and losing-of-innocence in the dream factory. Beatty and co-screenwriter Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Melvin and Howard, Scent of a Woman) clearly want to say something about how people with wealth and power, and those who get close to these individuals, can circumvent the rules of human behavior that the rest of us live by. But exactly what the moral of this picture is, I couldn’t begin to guess.