Review: Rules Don’t Apply

Rules Don’t Apply was supposed to be a ‘comeback’ film – written, produced, directed and starring Warren Beatty. Unfortunately the result is a case of wearing at least one hat too many.

Beatty stars as Howard Hughes in the latter part of his career, when the neuroses and eccentricities had well and truly set in.

It’s 1958 and young and innocent Protestant girl Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) arrives in Hollywood. The fictitious character is technically a songwriter, but she’s been put under contract by Hughes for RKO, where she expects to be groomed as a potential starlet. She doesn’t realise just how many other girls have similar contracts or how elusive her new boss really is.

Also employed by Hughes is Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich). He’s one of the chauffeurs who’s assigned to drive Marla to screen tests and the like. All the male employees are given strict instructions that to get intimate with the young ladies is a sackable offence.

Of course, an attraction grows between Marla and Frank, but it’s kept in check by their strict religious upbringings, Marla’s eagle eyed mother (Annette Bening). Hughes’ strict code of ethics, and Frank’s commitment to his childhood sweetheart back home.

The romance aspect of the film works to a certain point. Ehrenreich has an easy, old school charm, which he displayed equally effectively in the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar! last year – he was one of that film’s biggest assets. And he’s the best thing about this film. He and Collins have chemistry, although the script doesn’t always make it easy for us to root for them.

More problematic though is the parallel story which involves Hughes’ business ventures and his chaotic management of his staff and contractors. It wasn’t that long ago that filmgoers got another depiction of Howard Hughes in the form of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, and the constant reminders to that film are not flattering for this one.

Much of the fault lies in Beatty’s portrayal. I’m not being ageist when I say he’s lost whatever it is that he had. There are plenty of charismatic older actors out there – Frank Langella, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman to name a few, but seeing Beatty’s performance makes you realise that like every other kind of performance art, if you don’t stay in practice, you lose your touch. He hasn’t starred in a film in 15 years, (and that was the misfire Town and Country). He hasn’t directed a film in 19 years – the admittedly very good Bulworth. Sadly, he doesn’t do the legend of Howard Hughes justice here.   

The editing is all over the place. One scene abruptly ends and without a beat a character is speaking in the next scene. No doubt this is an attempt to recapture the mood of a screwball comedy, but that style hasn’t worked for decades.

This is the reason Hollywood studios don’t do vanity projects anymore. Another voice in the creative process may have found a way to bring out more drama or character sympathy. Instead we are left with an uneven curio with very few moments that are actually funny or emotionally affecting.

The period detail is fine, particularly the costumes. The dialogue is a little heavy handed. The film’s title is actually spoken (or sung) no fewer than 12 times in the film, just in case you didn’t get the message the first few times.

Rules Don’t Apply has gone down as a monumental financial bomb, so it’s very likely the last film that Warren Beatty will direct. Regrettably, it’s not a great one to go out on. 

✭✭1/2

Rules Don’t Apply is now in national release

Richard Leathem @dickiegee