Recent Best Picture debacle aside (seriously, how funny was that?), Warren Beatty has been one of Hollywood’s most pivotal and beloved figures for decades; rather impressive considering he hasn’t stepped in front of the camera for more than 15 years (his last performance in 2001’s disastrous Town & Country). However, this year sees his return in Rules Don’t Apply – in which he writes, directs, and stars – and indeed the film which was supposed to be a contender during the recent Awards Season. Many wondered why it failed to attain any attentions, besides a single Golden Globe nomination, and why its theatrical release date was delayed. However once you have actually endured the shambolic 127 minutes, it all becomes crystal clear.
An ode to the era in which Beatty himself was infiltrating studio filmmaking, Rules Don’t Apply details the tangled relationship shared between three primary players – Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), an aspiring young actress; Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), an ambitious driver; and Howard Hughes (Beatty), the eccentric and introverted billionaire who revolutionised aviation, and now Hollywood filmmaking. For those who don’t know, Hughes’ methods were interesting to put it politely. His watertight contracts with his actors, directors, and artists ensured they were constrained to his creative output only, and to abide by his many peculiar rules, such as no single employee can have any kind of romantic engagement with another, and meetings must be undertaken in the utmost privacy – often Hughes arriving separately, and conversation unfolding in the pitch black so a level of mystery and distance is kept.
With this in mind, you’d likely be thinking Beatty’s film is focused on the scandalous pairing of Mabrey and Forbes – two contractually-obliged employees – who break Hughes’ oath and begin sharing an intimate relationship. But then, you’d be wrong. Very wrong. What Rules Don’t Apply actually details is a hideously vein, self-indulgent, and ever-so-arduous congratulatory piece for its avant-garde ruler, and indeed Beatty himself. Much like Denzel Washington’s Fences, this is a horrible vanity project which lacks any weight, drama, or even intrigue. Beatty’s wafter-thin and vanilla storytelling replaces the clout and energy of its 1958 Hollywood setting in favour of extended monologues about ice cream – seriously. Beatty employs a sprawling ensemble cast for his showcase, including the likes of his wife Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Hayley Bennett, Oliver Platt, Chace Crawford, Ed Harris, Steve Coogan, and Alec Baldwin, all of which are failed by his meandering dialogue, and empty characterisation.
For a film set amongst the peak of heady studio filmmaking; an era in which Beatty actually lived through, his lack of understanding is beyond baffling. The film has zero flavour or texture for its sun-soaked and glamorous environment, and we never underpin the inner workings of the plentiful shoots, the script meetings, the promotional campaigns. Instead we are subjected to endlessly tedious exchanges in which Hughes demands something, or those working for Hughes consistently talk about him. There’s even a near twenty-minute encounter shared between Collins, Ehrenreich, and Bening which is only supported by their incessant need to pinpoint precisely what Hughes is doing, and when they can spend some time with him. “I heard Mr. Hughes is currently having a pedicure and then will be heading to the Himalayas via hover-board where he’ll be teaching Yaks how to optimise their business loans!” Okay, that isn’t real dialogue from the movie, but you get the point…
In truth, the fact that Rules Don’t Apply fails to ever challenge its polarising subject is more than a missed opportunity; it is actually sad. Hughes is a fascinatingly complex figure – one who continues to puzzle to this day – and yet Beatty never even has the bottle to question his practices, or cast them in a light that isn’t rose-tinted. It’s like making a film about Donald Trump, and only stating that he is renowned for hosting The Apprentice. Audiences don’t have to like or admire Hughes, but they should get the opportunity to form such an opinion for themselves. Beatty is so instant of painting him in secrecy, and by default affection, that we are almost forced to find him irritating and self-righteous, as opposed to understanding his viewpoints and values, and therefore having more ammunition to render Hughes for ourselves.
Beatty’s latest should have been a riotous return; after all, he is the mind behind the likes of Reds (1981), and Bulworth (1998), but instead he delivers a work so painstakingly tame, so desperately beige, and so frustratingly self-obsessed that is is beyond impossible to enjoy, respect, or recommend. The most fascinating thing on offer is Collins’ eyebrows. How are they so perfect?
Rules Don’t Apply opens on wide release across UK cinemas on 10th March.