THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"RULES DON'T APPLY"
It's been fifteen years since Warren Beatty acted in a movie. His last appearance was in the notorious 2001 dud Town & Country. It's been even longer since he directed a film. You'd have to go all the way back to Bulworth in 1998 for that. Beatty has spent many years talking about his desire to play Howard Hughes, and he's finally succeeded. Having him return with a long-gestating passion project is an exciting idea. Unfortunately, Rules Don't Apply, despite a strong start, proves to be a significantly underwhelming comeback vehicle.
Lily Collins plays Marla Mabrey, an aspiring actress who has been signed as a contract player by Hughes. She is one of seemingly dozens of young women he keeps around with the promise of fame. Marla has an assigned driver, Frank Forbes (Hail Caesar's Alden Ehrenreich), whose job is to chauffeur her to and from meetings that never happen. Neither of them has actually met Hughes, to their mutual frustration. She wants to know when the boss is finally going to do her screen test; he's an aspiring developer who wants to pitch him on a piece of land. A romance blossoms between the two as they attempt to fulfill every whim of their mutual employer.
That's the effective part of the story. Eventually Hughes completely enters the picture and Rules Don't Apply abruptly shifts focus away from Marla and Frank and towards the eccentric mogul. He, too, begins to fall for Marla, although most of his time is spent trying to outrun some airline officials who are worried their investment in his aeronautics business may be seriously jeopardized by his alleged mental incompetence. Much of the movie's second half consists of Hughes engaging in bizarre behavior, like obsessively hoarding a particular flavor of ice cream or frustrating his security chief (Matthew Broderick) by bouncing to different spots on the globe for no apparent reason.
Howard Hughes has long made a fascinating subject for motion pictures, from Jonathan Demme's darkly comic 1980 Melvin and Howard to Martin Scorsese's probing 2004 biopic The Aviator. Filmmakers like to focus on the duality of Hughes – how he was a genius in the areas of cinema and flight, but also a psychologically tortured soul whose OCD made it hard for him to function.
Beatty, who additionally wrote the script, has the right idea early on, when Rules Don't Apply concentrates on how Hughes' enigmatic presence impacts two young people who think association with him can make their dreams come true. Collins and Ehrenreich have solid chemistry together, which earns our empathy toward their characters. The film is funny and poignant in its first half.
Once Hughes fully enters, he takes over, and that's where the problem lies. Beatty seemingly tries to replicate Hughes' scattered state of mind by having the story jump around from one thing to another in an almost random manner. A lot of small supporting characters are introduced – most of them played by notable stars, such as Candice Bergen, Alec Baldwin, and Oliver Platt – then quickly shuffled off. More time is spent on Hughes repetitively doing odd things than on the love story we were previously watching. What begins as a light, jaunty look at how sane people deal with disturbed-but-important bigwigs morphs into a scattershot mess.
To be fair, Beatty is very good in the role, refusing to succumb to overacting. He presents Hughes as a basically good-hearted man who, at some level, knows his mental health is deteriorating, and fears what that might mean. Even if the movie as a whole doesn't quite work, it's a real treat to see the actor taking on a role he's enthusiastic about.
Rules Don't Apply might have benefited from having some other input. Noted screenwriter Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Scent of a Woman) helped develop the story, but the script is credited solely to Beatty. Perhaps another point of view would have helped keep the story on track, to recognize that Hughes is better here as a supporting character than as a lead. There are certainly moments of pleasure – some good acting, a few funny lines, etc. The film unravels in its second half, though, which brings with it a profound sense of disappointment.
Who knows how long it will be until we see Beatty make another picture?
( out of four)
Rules Don't Apply is rated PG-13 for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements, and drug references. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.
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