Warren Beatty returns with a ride through Hollywood, Howard Hughes' eccentricities, and the intersection of dreams and reality.
Since he became a filmmaker with 1978’s Heaven Can Wait, actor turned writer, producer and director Warren Beatty has eight subsequent screen appearances to his name. He penned and/or helmed five of them. It might seem like a slow trickle of work after his heyday from the late 1950s to the early 1970s; however perhaps it’s emblematic of a realisation that’s stressed in his latest role. As Howard Hughes in Rules Don’t Apply, pursuing a passion and striving for greatness doesn’t follow a quick and easy path.
Indeed, it has been reported that Beatty has been cogitating over his latest effort as a multi-hyphenate since the 1960s; his ardour shows in the end product, and not just through the enormous cast (with Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen, Matthew Broderick, Ed Harris, Oliver Platt and Alec Baldwin all making an appearance) he’s corralled to help. Rules Don’t Apply is less about Hughes — and certainly less of a biopic than Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, though more focused on its subject’s broader life, fame, and legacy than Jonathan Demme’s comedy Melvin and Howard — and more about the world he, and Beatty, inhabited. Location-wise, that’s largely Hollywood for the feature’s timespan between 1958 and 1964; emotionally and thematically, it’s a realm in which one’s wildest dreams can come true, but at a significant cost, and with clear contradictions clouding the way.
That’s a lesson driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, Hail, Caesar!) and aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins, Love, Rosie) don’t just learn but live when they come into Hughes’ orbit, him working to ferry around the RKO studio head, director, investor, and aviation enthusiast’s stable of female talent, her as one of the aforementioned stars-in-their-eyes brood. Hughes has a rule that none of his employees and ladies should fraternise romantically or physically, yet a bond still springs between the Methodist with ambitions to buy land on Mulholland Drive and a high school sweetheart waiting for his hand, and the Baptist former Apple Blossom Queen with a strict mother (Annette Bening, Danny Collins) in tow.
In telling their tales, and intertwining the initially unseen Hughes’ with both, Beatty remains both enamoured by the memory and cautious of the actuality behind the period that he, himself, came to attention. Exploring what his characters seek, how they endeavour to get it, and how life intervenes might seem a standard navel-gazing Los Angeles-set narrative, but Rules Don’t Apply isn’t a standard affair. It’s smart in its contrasts of gender, place, celebrity, and normality, more so than its story initially seems to intimate. It’s also searching in its sentiments, understanding the yearning that equally drives ambition and fences people in. It’s zesty in its pace, even as it reaches beyond two hours, and it’s warm but never overwhelmingly glowing in its comedy and images. And, as its introductory text conveys — “never check an interesting fact,” the film announces at the outset — it’s happy to do so by creating a vibe more than staying slavish to actual details.
That makes Beatty’s first directorial effort since 1998’s Bulworth and first acting role since 2001’s Town and Country loose in its elements but tight in the way that it all comes together. The Spruce Goose, Hughes’ increasingly reclusive behaviour, and the fictional Mabrey’s willingness to do what it takes to get ahead all earn more than a mention, all playing into the movie’s dissection of the price of chasing what you care about, aka money and fame. He takes the same approach structurally, cutting some scenes short, letting others take their time, but maintaining both engagement and an immersive rhythm. Beatty’s own commanding performance may appear to do so as well, judiciously used as it is and finding empathy in Hughes’ heightening eccentricities as it does, but Ehrenreich and Collins each provide a grounding presence, their protagonists and portrayals eager and charming, yet rendered with a rich vein of truth as well as enthusiasm.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Rules Don’t Apply
Director: Warren Beatty
USA, 2016, 127 mins
Release date: April 27