**1/2 out of ****
(for sexual material, brief strong language, thematic elements, and drug references)
Released: November 23, 2016
Runtime: 126 minutes
Director: Warren Beatty
Starring: Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Warren Beatty, Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen
Sometimes, rules still do apply.
Warren Beatty, onscreen for the first time in 15 years and in the director’s chair again after 18, adheres to the laws of cinema as often as he doesn’t in Rules Don’t Apply. The result is an entertaining but frustrating mixed bag of classic Studio Era moviemaking.
The Hollywood icon has toiled unsuccessfully for decades to bring his Howard Hughes passion project to the screen, and Martin Scorsese eventually beat him to it with The Aviator. Indefatigable, Beatty never let the passion die. Eventually, he morphed that project with another, and a more personal one; a tale of exploring Hollywood as he first discovered it when storming the studio gates in the late 1950s.
Rules Don’t Apply is two entirely different movies awkwardly crammed together. One is really good while the other is a mess, and perhaps unsurprisingly the good one happens to be the story that Beatty can relate to (young love in Old Hollywood), not the one he stars in (the Hughes character study).
For the first hour, the love story takes precedence while Hughes plays a supporting role. Then at the halfway mark, the script flips; Hughes is suddenly front-and-center while the romance takes a back seat (and the ingénue all but disappears).
Beatty directs that first half with confidence and class, telling a sweet, funny, and endearing Tinseltown fable of star-crossed lovers in the city of angels (he’s Methodist, she’s Baptist), with Hughes as a lively comic foil. It’s a real charmer, and recalls the sophisticated comedy of early Blake Edwards. But when it becomes Beatty’s long-awaited Hughes biopic, the filmmaking falls apart according to the same pitfalls of its bizarre billionaire subject: erratic, eccentric, and simultaneously obsessive compulsive while also being deranged and confused.
The reason is simple: while the aesthetic craft remains impeccable, the narrative collapses when Beatty (who also wrote the screenplay) stops applying basic rules of storytelling.
The romance follows a clear and intriguing path, with compelling character arcs and interesting themes. This love story, after all, isn’t just set in Hollywood but it’s between two young conservative Christians who find themselves thrust into a permissive culture on the front end of the sexual revolution. In other words, Hour One follows tried and true rules, and succeeds in doing so.
The film’s title is thematically implicit on multiple levels, too: the young starlet not fitting the mold, evolving sexual mores, and a wealthy recluse who defies every convention, whether personal, professional, or political.
But Hour Two? It’s sloppy and formless, with Beatty shoving in every Hughes myth and anecdote he found interesting but to no rhyme or reason, failing to weave them into the romance narrative he established in Hour One (or even making the disparate peculiarities and paranoia connective in-and-of themselves). It all starts to unravel in a centerpiece scene between Lily Collins’ Marla Mabrey, the young starlet, and Hughes (who has her under contract) that meanders on for way too long.
It’s a real shame how it all falls apart, because it begins with such promise, including auteur strokes of ambition rarely seen today, such as a simple but impressive lengthy conversation on a nighttime wharf between Beatty’s Hughes and Alden Ehrenreich’s Frank Forbes, the romantic lead (and young Beatty clone), that goes on in a single uncut take lasting nearly five minutes.
The climactic scene, set in 1964, also recaptures the nostalgia that the entire film was going for, and its legitimately effective. Its pathos is magnified by realizing this is what the whole movie could’ve been, but wasn’t. Equally poignant is the titular song “The Rules Don’t Apply” (the film’s one legitimate Oscar hopeful), sung with a plaintive melancholy by Lily Collins (daughter of Phil) as part of an overall strong, assertive, yet bubbly and charismatic performance that should have Disney banging down her down to star in a future live action princess movie (unsurprisingly, she’s already played Show White in the little seen Mirror Mirror).
Beatty calls in a lot of favors, too, as a Parade of Stars fills out the deep ensemble; Mrs. Beatty Annette Bening is an early standout as the chipper but proper mother of Collins’ Marla. There’s a lot to enjoy here, particularly for classic movie fans, but Beatty’s scattershot storytelling makes one suspect that his performance as the impulsive and volatile Hughes, predicated on following whims over reason, bled over into a rare (and detrimental) case of Method directing.