It’s been entirely too long since Warren Beatty made his presence known in the pop culture mainstream. Mine is the generation that primarily knows Beatty as the guy who dated Madonna for a while and probably got an unflattering Carly Simon song written about him. And maybe a few millennials out there have some nostalgic love for Dick Tracy.
And seemingly out of nowhere, he walked into the party with Rules Don’t Apply, which he finally got made after reportedly developing the film over forty freaking years. And after all that time, it should’ve been a hell of a lot better than this.
Our protagonist is Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, the future Han Solo himself), who just started work a couple of weeks prior as a driver under the employ of Howard Hughes (played by writer/director/producer Warren Beatty). Forbes has dreams of buying up some prime real estate to develop into a suburb, with help from his new employer. Frank is also a devout Methodist, which means that he’s now effectively married to the first woman he had sex with (Taissa Farmiga, little sister to Vera, in the role of Sarah).
His love interest is Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins, daughter to Phil), the newest contract actress for Hughes’ movie studio. She’s a sweet young woman who wants to try her luck at acting, even though she’s a born songwriter who can barely sing. Marla is a Baptist who’s never had a drink, never had sex, and she’s arrived in LA with her mother (Annette Bening, wife to Beatty).
No time is wasted before Levar (Hughes’ right-hand-man, played by Matthew Broderick) steps in to warn Frank that the contract actresses are off-limits and anyone caught fooling around with them will get instantly fired. Levar proceeds to spend the next hour of screentime constantly repeating that warning to Frank while intermittently trying to ask Marla out. Like that’s not the least bit sleazy or hypocritical.
So Frank and Marla feel an instant connection, yet their jobs, their religion, and everything else compels them not to fall for each other. Will they or won’t they? Better question: Who freaking cares?
The characters are boring, the plot has no stakes, they only ever talk about Howard Hughes anyway (when they’re not talking about religion, anyway), and the whole plot is at a standstill until Hughes decides to get off his reclusive ass and do something. So the movie is stuck in a holding pattern in which every last character (I’m seriously pretty sure that every last character in the first act mentions this at least once) talks ad nauseam about the sin of premarital intercourse, until Hughes finally appears in the flesh. Half an hour in. And after the halfway point, Hughes more or less hijacks the whole movie while the romance plot is essentially forgotten until the closing minutes.
Bad as the pacing is, everything about this movie just feels unintentionally off. The whole time I was watching, I kept asking why that shot had to be included, or why some line was necessary. Why some shots switched back and forth every couple of seconds, and why some shots seemed to cut off just a split-second too early, like the filmmakers were trying to rush through the picture. No joke, this movie has FOUR listed editors, and it appropriately looks like it was cut together in a four-way tug-of-war with the Moviola.
And the supporting cast! So many talented actors, all varying degrees of famous and all utterly wasted. Ed Harris? Only gets one scene and he could’ve been replaced with anyone else. Alec Baldwin (also an alumnus of that other Howard Hughes biopic)? Scarcely in the movie and his character could have been cut entirely. Ditto for Martin Sheen and Haley Bennett. Annette Bening’s character is a one-note waste of her talent. Candice Bergen’s character barely registers as anything more than a plot device. Paul freaking Sorvino got a background role somewhere. The only ones with the comedic timing to really stand out in their two minutes of screen time are Oliver Platt (an alumnus of Beatty’s previous directorial effort, Bulworth) and Steve Coogan.
So which actors do get a decent amount of screen time? Well, a big one is Matthew Broderick, who’s long since lost whatever acting talent he might have had. It’s flat embarrassing at this point to watch him mug for the camera here.
Two other noteworthy players are of course our romantic leads. As much as I love Ehrenreich and Collins, they simply did not have the talent to salvage this picture. They have enough chemistry to plausibly sell a romance arc, but the characters are so boring and the obstacles to their union are so transparent that there’s simply no way to care. Incidentally, Collins’ character is responsible for writing and performing the title song (actually written by Eddie Arkin and Lorraine Feather). It’s a cute little ditty, even if some of the rhymes are clumsily written. And I don’t know if Collins’ vocals are intentionally shaky because her character can’t sing, but still… yikes.
That just leaves Warren Beatty. There’s little doubt that the guy is full-on committed to his portrayal of Howard Hughes during his steep decline into madness. It’s genuinely fascinating to watch. But if Beatty so clearly wanted to make a biopic of Howard Hughes, he should have gone and made a movie about Howard Hughes! Instead, he portrays the character’s paranoia and seclusion by way of a parallel budding romance, such that the two essentially get half a movie apiece and both feel incomplete as a direct result.
I wish I could say that the movie at least works as a tribute to the Hollywood of yesteryear. Except that it really doesn’t. There’s nothing overly nostalgic about the time period, and little effort is made to glamorize that particular era of filmmaking. That’s right, folks: This is a movie about the glory days of Tinseltown, and not even the visuals were enough to distract from this dull story or the wretched editing.
Rules Don’t Apply is a bona fide mess. The script is awkward, the editing is a joke, the cast is wasted, the characters are boring, and the entire plot is driven forward by an eccentric recluse who doesn’t even show up until after the first act is over! I’ve no doubt that there’s a good story in here somewhere, but it’s nonetheless a poorly told story. Absolutely not recommended.