On the surface, Warren Beatty’s new Howard Hughes romantic comedy, Rules Don’t Apply, has quite a bit in common with Woody Allen’s Cafe Society. Both bask in a Hollywood glamour long gone and involve a love triangle between two young people and the older, powerful man they both work for. While Allen churned out his movie in the typical turnaround time of under a year, Beatty has been tinkering with his Hughes movie for decades. He first had the idea to make a film about the infamous introvert billionaire in the early ’70s but has taken his time to allow the project to gestate and evolve, unfortunately it was all for naught. Rules Don’t Apply is a mess of a film that probably should have been made when the director/star was at least 20 years younger, if at all.
The film begins with Frank (the soon-to-be Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich), a new driver working for Hughes, picking up the latest actress (Lily Collins) signed to a contract by the mysterious mogul. The two bond over having never met the man, Beatty remains off-screen for most of the first act of the film, and hides in dark rooms for most of his scenes. While it’s true that Hughes preferred to be seen as little as possible, this also helps conceal the fact that Beatty is a nearly 80 year old man playing a 60 year old who we’re supposed to accept having a romantic relationship with a twenty-something actress.
One of the film’s many problems is its protagonist issue. Frank and Marla are given almost equal weight before Hughes hijacks the second half, a scorned Marla all but disappears and it becomes more about Hughes’ daddy issues and the relationship between him and Frank. On their own the characters have interesting qualities, but none of them have any real chemistry together.
Perhaps in an effort to give the film a sense of urgency, it’s divided up into slivers that barely qualify as scenes. We’ll go in and out of interactions only to get a line or two, providing details that usually added little, if anything, to the overall narrative. While the short scenes show time passing, it’s never clear how much time exactly is passing. We see Marla and her mother (Annette Bening) gripe about Hughes’ absence over many meals, but is it weeks? Months? This is an LA movie, so the seasons are no help, time passes but very little changes. Regardless of whether or not this was intentional, the result is sections that feel very awkward and disjointed, with increasingly erratic and frustrating ins and outs. Short scenes do not make a movie fast paced, instead the dozens of snippets amount to a film that feels much longer than its two hour running time.
On the plus side are the film’s slick production values (courtesy of veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel) and star-studded ensemble cast. The supporting cast is a who’s who of character actors, including Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Oliver Platt, Ed Harris, and Steve Coogan… but unfortunately none of them are given much to work with. Blink and you’ll miss Harris, and Paul Sorvino presumably shot a bigger role before becoming a background player with one line seen a television set. The relatively unknown leads on the other hand have undeniable star potential, particularly Ehrenreich. This film’s saving grace might just be people’s curiosity and seeing this young actor who just landed such a high profile role in the Star Wars universe.
It would seem the marketing team for Rules Don’t Apply also didn’t really know what to make of it. The poster looks like it’s for a thriller while the trailer made it look like a screwball comedy. It tries to be light and funny at times, but with Steve Coogan’s scene being one of the few exceptions, it fails in this regard as well. Other parts are meant to be romantic, but end up just feeling dirty. The tones change faster than Hughes’ erratic moods.
The reason Woody Allen is able to make a movie a year is because he doesn’t overthink them. Being a director means being confronted with a thousand decisions on any given day and if you were to over-analyze every single one, a movie would never get completed. Rules Don’t Apply feels like Beatty got lost in his own head, spending too much time tinkering when he should have been honing his craft by just making movies and putting them out there. This is the first film Beatty has directed since Bulworth (1998), and his fifth film overall. It’s not that far fetched to posit that this movie icon of the 1960s and ’70s might be a little out of touch.