Warren Beatty seems to have taken the title of his new movie Rules Don’t Apply a tad too literally because in his position as writer, director and star of this Howard Hughes biopic he abandoned all rules of coherent storytelling, resulting in a true embarrassment for all involved parties. On the plus side, Alden Ehrenreich, playing an ambitious young driver who awkwardly romances a young starlet (Lily Collins) while quickly becoming Hughes’ right-hand man, has already been cast as the new Han Solo in Disney’s forthcoming spin-off prequel about the once and future Millenium Falcon captain. Rules Don’t Apply and Ehrenreich’s remarkably bland performance in it can’t change that, nor should it considering how strong he was in Hail, Caesar! earlier this year. Plus, Lily Collins doesn’t exactly embarrass herself. On the down side…well, there’s everything and everyone (including Matthew Broderick, Candace Bergen, Alec Baldwin, Steve Coogan and Oliver Platt) else.
Where to even begin. Perhaps some background will help: Thanks to The Simpsons and other such parodies, we tend to forget about Howard Hughes the pioneering entrepreneur who bedded movie stars and conquered the aviation industry, and instead remember Howard Hughes the reclusive eccentric overcome by OCD:
Some perhaps don’t even realize Captain America and Agent Carter‘s Howard Stark is openly modeled after the trailblazing version of Howard Hughes, the guy the world loved (or loved to hate), not the guy the world gossiped about, asking things like, “Does he really keep jars of urine in his room?”:
Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator offered the definitive cinematic portrait of the Howard Stark version of Hughes, but since that film stops short of giving us a full-time display of the man with kleenex boxes for shoes (as Mr. Burns sports in The Simpsons parody) there’s been an obvious opening to finish the story. Christopher Nolan saw that, and tried for years before repurposing his ideas for a Howard Hughes movie and crafting them onto Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises.
Warren Beatty obviously saw the opening as well, but the rest of the world didn’t see much profit in it, forcing Beatty to persevere for years in a seemingly endless search for funding. Meanwhile, Beatty oddly mimicked Hughes by receding from the spotlight, morphing into Annette Benning’s arm candy at awards shows and nothing more. Rules Don’t Apply is his first new movie since 2001’s long-forgotten Town & Country, and the first film he’s written and directed since 1998’s Bullworth. Perhaps he stayed away for too long because he seems to have forgotten everything which once made him the Oscar-winning director of 1981’s Reds.
To be fair, his basic instincts are sound. Rather than make this is a straight biopic, like an unofficial The Aviator: The Later Years, he’s gone the Me and Orson Welles and My Favorite Year route, both historical romantic dramedies in which two people happen to fall in love while rubbing elbows with a Hollywood icon, Welles for the former (obviously), Errol Flynn for the latter. Thus, Rules Don’t Apply is really meant to be a movie about a young driver with real estate dreams and a talented young songwriter taking a stab at film stardom as one of Hughes potential contract actresses at RKO Studios. Their mutual connection to Hughes is what draws them together, but it’s also what drives them apart, as the eccentric billionaire waves through their lives like a wrecking ball. However, they are all eccentrics in their own way, battling restrictive religious upbringings or societal pressures or impoverished childhoods or even their own minds to be the type of people who defy the rules and prosper because of it.
And, fine. That’s certainly workable. However, something happened between thought and execution to completely derail the film. I’m honestly not sure if the blame lies completely at Beatty’s feet or his financiers because if I didn’t know any better I’d swear this movie was hacked to death by producers desperate to produce something more commercial. But why would they do that with Rules Don’t Apply, the type of film which is only made to win awards? No one’s getting rich off of this. This isn’t Suicide Squad. There aren’t millions of dollars and thousands of jobs riding on its success. Yet small films sometimes get hijacked too.
I don’t know this to be the case with Rules Don’t Apply, but it sure feels like it because there is so clearly a different film with more fully realized characters and a coherent story begging to break out here. Instead of getting that, though, we get one choppy editing decision after another, as if an argument broke out in the editing room over whether or not this was a movie about Hughes or about Ehrenreich and Collins’ characters and neither side won. As a result, the film abruptly cuts from one scene to the next with such rapidity I honestly thought something had gone wrong in the projection booth in my theater, like they had somehow set the film on fast-forward without actually speeding up any of the dialogue (if that was possible).
I admit I initially found this intriguing – a historical biopic with MTV-esque zero attention span editing? Interesting. Let’s see where you’re going with this. It certainly allowed them to quickly plow through a considerable amount of exposition and story setup. However, the technique quickly grows tiresome, especially as it distracts from the plot and characters and lacks any real discipline, allowing years to fly by without explanation as we follow Hughes fleeing from one tax shelter to the next.
It’s not just the scene transitions that suffer though. Some of the individual scenes have also been hacked to death or simply seen incompetent, such as the terrible continuity displayed during one dinner scene when Matthew Broderick’s (as Ehrenreich’s superior) hands radically shift position from one reverse shot to the next. Of course, that’s not the type of thing you’re supposed to notice and/or care about, but it is so egregious throughout Rules Don’t Apply it’s hard not be distracted by it.
So, when overwrought pieces of musical score come and go with no organic set-up, suddenly overwhelming a love scene or poking you in the ribs with “gosh, it must have sucked working for ole Mr. Hughes, huh” humor, you just go with it because with Rules Don’t Apply that kind of thing is par for the course. Mostly, though, you’re just desperate for it to finally end.
Fine. But, come on, the only reason to watch this to see if Warren Beatty’s any good in it. Does Rules Don’t Apply at least deliver in that…
Ah, who am I kidding? Of course it doesn’t! As Hughes, Beatty’s every weird laugh, one moment of repeating himself (because, y’know, OCD), bizarre way of saying “daddy” and manic mood switch is meant to convey the character’s madness, but as I watched it I kept picturing Beatty running lines with his wife (who has a small role near the beginning of the film) and imagining her struggling to be honest with him, praising him for being so good when he’s so clearly not. He comes off more like a caricature of a quirky man than an actual quirky man. Crucially, this is Warren Beatty playing Howard Hughes the eccentric, not Warren Beatty actually being Howard Hughes the eccentric. I was aware of his performance in a way I shouldn’t have been.
THE BOTTOM LINE
We do not lack for cinematic odes to Golden Age Hollywood (recent examples include Trumbo, My Week with Marilyn and The Last of Robin Hood). These films tend to come and go without much serious fanfare, netting the occasional acting nomination (or even win) on the awards circuit. However, they are at least competently made movies. Not so much Rules Don’t Apply, which belongs more on bad movie podcasts than on an awards ballot unless it’s The Razzies. There’s a halfway decent movie dying to break out here, but a series of inept editing choices, so bad it had me comparing it unfavorably to Suicide Squad, torpedoes anything good that could have come of this.