After roughly sixteen years of inactivity, iconic actor/director/writer/producer Warren Beatty returns with “Rules Don’t Apply.” Set against the nostalgic backdrop of nineteen fifties Hollywood, brought to life through Caleb Deschanel’s polished, glamorous cinematography and the use of grainy stock footage, the picture is an old school romantic comedy as well as a dark portrait of a brilliant, ambitious and ultimately tortured man (the billionaire Howard Hughes).
The picture begins as a romantic comedy between aspiring land developer Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, whose chiseled good looks reminds one of James Dean) and aspiring starlet Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins). Both work for Hughes (Beatty), Forbes drives the starlets around while Mabrey has a studio contract although she hasn’t shot a minute of film. Neither has met the billionaire, who has become highly reclusive. Through their daily interactions, a forbidden romantic fascination begins to develop between them as they eagerly anticipate their first meeting with Hughes. The film is light and jaunty, even a little corny. Characters say things like “Oh my stars,” songs like “Rockin’ Robin” and “Hooray For Hollywood” are used throughout.
The film keeps you engaged primarily through its quick, jazzy pace (the editing by Robin Gonsalves, Leslie Jones, Brian Scofield and Billy Weber is jarring in the way it cuts from a longer conversational scene to a sequence of five or 10-second interactions) Beatty’s nutty screenplay and effortless chemistry between Ehrenreich and Collins. If the movie were just Forbes and Mabrey driving around, slyly flirting with each other I don’t think anyone would complain.
About a quarter of the way through, “Rules Don’t Apply” pivots from light and fluffy to a more serious film about Hughes and the deceiving illusion of celebrity. Some may take issue with this change but I think it brings depth to characters and taking the film in an unexpected and far more compelling direction.
Initially, Hughes is treated like this enigmatic figure; brilliant and ambitious but barely seen by anyone, including his closest advisors. For young folks like Mabrey and Forbes Hughes emits a mythic, even romantic aura based on his past exploits and accomplishments. They don’t know him but they sure want too. When Mabrey finally gets the chance, in a darkened hotel room at night, she puts on a prim and enthusiastic performance—trying to maintain her excitement and impress him, while he sits in the shadows like a mysterious phantom.
When he first comes out the shadows, he’s eccentric and rambling but also charismatic and adventurous; he often wears a leather jacket and fedora, similar to Indiana Jones. During his first meeting with Forbes he takes the lad to a private burger dinner at the docks at three in the morning. Hughes draws both Forbes and Mabrey into his exciting and unpredictable world (surprise plane trips to places like Las Vegas or Acapulco), Forbes even moves into his inner circle.
However, as the film goes on, that romantic/adventurous aura dissipates, revealing a deeply damaged man plagued by schizophrenia and paranoia. He becomes difficult to work with, obsessive over the minutest things and even more reclusive—hiding himself in rooms and going long stretches without seeing anyone. At first, Hughes antics are amusing in a Grandpa Simpson kind of way but after a while it becomes sad.
If you’re familiar with Hughes or have seen “The Aviator” this isn’t revelatory stuff but “Rules Don’t Apply” is as much about the damaging effects Hughes erratic behavior has on our fresh-faced lovers, as it is a biographical film about his later life. Imagine if you had the chance to work with someone you admired greatly in an intimate capacity and they turned out to be pathetic and mentally unstable; it would be soul crushing and you would never view them the same way again. And what if said person also impacted your romantic relationship?
Once Hughes is fully out of the shadows, scattered brained and vulnerable, it’s not a pretty picture. The film doesn’t fully shake its comedic demeanor but the mood becomes noticeably tragic and bleak — no longer the upbeat rom-com. “Rules Don’t Apply” is about two ambitious, wide-eyed kids seduced by the enigmatic nature of a once brilliant man and left disillusioned.
Beatty is simply phenomenal; playful and scenery chewing, frustrating (oh so frustrating!) and emotionally touching. His final scene, inside another darkened hotel room, is heart wrenching. Beatty has a knack for playing scrappy antiheroes and loners (think “Bonnie and Clyde” and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”) and Hughes’ eccentric and tragic personality is naturally suited to his acting strengths. As cool as Hughes is as a mysterious figure Beatty makes him three-dimensional.
Were “Rules Don’t Apply” simply a rom-com between two young employees of Hughes, it would still be enjoyable but the pivot into more of a tragic film about Hughes pushes the picture to a greater, more resonate level.