Rules Don’t Apply is a slice of cigar-puffing old school Hollywood, but not a particularly fresh one. Warren Beatty’s zany biopic jiggles haplessly like one of those weird meat-filled jello molds of yesteryear, bouncing around without structure. It’s clear that Beatty wants to have a good time – why else would showtunes sandwich a conversation about abortion – but a focus on Hughes’ ice cream preference takes the wind right our from any character’s dramatic sails. You’ll laugh at Hughes’ dementia (LOL, SENILITY), marvel at Hughes’ ownership of women and be wowed by TV dinners all over again – all while you’re wondering why there’s over two hours of this one-note nonsense.
Beatty doesn’t only write and direct Rules Don’t Apply, he also stars as aviation enthusiast/reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Although, this isn’t just a story about Hughes’ attempt to avoid psychiatric evaluations that could cost him his fortune. Alden Ehrenreich stars as one of Hughes’ drivers – the ambitious Frank Forbes – who strikes up a friendship with Hughes’ newest contracted actress, Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins).
Hughes has a strict no funny business policy between drivers and actresses, which keeps the two honest despite their lusty gazes. Hughes’ newest employees quickly rise the ranks until Frank finds himself as one of the boss man’s most trusted “drivers” (aka assistants), while Mabrey finally gets her Hollywood screen test. Then, just like that, Howard Hughes starts flying around the country avoiding publicity, putting everyone’s plans of success on hold.
As a glance into Hughes’ cartoonish life, Rules Don’t Apply boils down the eccentric wishes of a man who repeats sentences fives times without knowing. A man who has associates draft 26-page memos about the extreme measures that should be put towards finding his wife’s missing cat. A man who buys out an entire warehouse of Banana Nut ice cream, only to decide French Vanilla is his new favorite flavor once his Banana Nut shipment arrives.
Sure, his running of RKO Pictures, designs for jetstream airplanes and investment wisdom helps paint an outdated picture (practically owning actresses, protecting family name only), but without Banana Nut ice cream anecdotes, how can we appreciate how cuckoo Hughes becomes during this volatile period of history?
Beatty becomes a bit of a jester as Howard Hughes, but that’s not without scoring some self-indulgent screen time. An awkward sex scene between Marla and Howard places Collins in Beatty’s lap, reminding audiences how good it is to write, direct AND star in your own film – no matter how creepy it might come across.
Bone-dry humor struggles enough as is, with Hughes lurking behind shadows as to not reveal his daffy state. Oliver Platt attempts to coax Beatty’s Hughes out of hiding as a potential business buyer, but this just sets in motion a game of phone tag that never grants Platt more than a definitive refusal. It’s the same punchline over and over, made worse when considering how numerous scenes sneak in this same recycled repetition. Beatty comes off as a sad old nutter whose unpredictability becomes counted on (almost like a Mel Brooks character without satire), because, well, THE RULES DON’T APPLY, BABY – but for two hours?
Beatty surrounds himself with a tremendous cast, but most arcs are glossy and slight. Young Han Solo (Ehrenreich) and Ms. Collins spend half the movie debating eternal damnation and the religious implications of sex before marriage, with a dusty, antique appeal. Taissa Farmiga pops in as Ehrenreich’s thrown-to-the-wayside sweetheart (with her In A Valley Of Violence co-star, Jumpy the Dog!!!!), representing a love-triangle arc that amounts to zero importance. Alec Baldwin cameos as a surface-value CEO for two whole scenes, Matthew Broderick pervs his way around Hughes’ actresses as a “look, but don’t touch” driver and Haley Bennett rattles off sexual euphemisms. I mean, Ed Harris, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Steve Coogan – it’s quite an impressive lineup of actors but they all become lost amidst the confusing confidence of Beatty and Howard Hughes.
Production design goes a long way to reconstruct Hollywood’s 60s sexiness, but scenes often feel Frankensteined together with shoddy stitching. Edits are clumsy, and transitions from one dimly-lit hotel room to the next feel rushed or cut-off. Collins scores musical points for her rendition of the “Rules Don’t Apply” theme song and costumes ooze conservative sex appeal from a time when showing a little knee got you noticed, but jagged pacing never carries the right key. No one should go as far to say Rule’s Don’t Apply feels like a relic, but swanky suits and a message of being an “exception” feel like they’re covered in the plastic coating draped over your grandparent’s sofa.
Without argument, Lily Collins is the standout talent in Beatty’s ensemble. She’s able to play both the sweet, Baptist virgin and drunk, creampuff-munching independent woman, enchanting through both song and champagne bubbliness. Ehrenreich is fine and Broderick gets his jokes in, but Collins is always this energetic dandy of a dame whenever she skips on camera.
Beatty himself is dwarfed during their climactic course-altering encounter, as Collins’ uninhibited actress treats Hughes like her own personal plaything. She’s bold, confident and seductive, coming full circle from her mother’s pure perception. Collins demands the screen no matter who she’s playing against, and strikes a noticeable high throughout Rules Don’t Apply.
That said, the movie itself is a bit of a nosediving bore. Warren Beatty has control of his vessel for certain spells, but otherwise the film feels like a free-falling production with no captain. Beatty’s focus here is on portraying Howard Hughes as the multitasking madman behind some of the country’s biggest innovations, while also bringing humor by way of insanity and emotion by way of his professional imprisonment.
Unfortunately, Rules Don’t Apply is jovial, but never periodically enjoyable. Serious, but never taken seriously. A prolific story told without much notability, lost in the bright spotlight of Hollywood just like the actresses Howard Hughes dazzled with promises of fame. It’s telling enough that only memory you’ll walk away with is Beatty screaming “BANANA NUT” at the camera, in hopes you’ll stay seated for another patience-testing hour.
Warren Beatty's Howard Hughes retrospective, Rules Don't Apply, is equally tone-deaf in humor and drama, cobbled together in ways that never seem to fit.