Warren Beatty takes on the legend of Howard Hughes

Warren Beatty puts the charm and challenge of the old Hollywood studio system on screen in Rules Don’t Apply. Courtesy of 20th century Fox Warren Beatty puts the charm and challenge of the old Hollywood studio system on screen in Rules Don’t Apply. Courtesy of 20th century Fox

The great Warren Beatty returns after a 15-year hiatus with Rules Don’t Apply, a Howard Hughes-centered passion project that has existed in the Hollywood icon’s mind since the early 1970s. Beatty rarely commits to a project halfway, and his fascination with the subject, setting and era of the film is evident in both his performance as the infamous industrialist-engineer-film producer and his energetic direction that draws terrific performances from a remarkable cast. Beatty’s enthusiasm for the subject is palpable and occasionally infectious, but it is also the film’s greatest weakness—the final result rarely has an opportunity to breathe or develop a life of its own, resulting in a fun movie with a lot to say but lacking much of a point.

Rules Don’t Apply follows the intertwined lives of Hughes (Beatty), his personal assistant, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), and aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins). Marla arrives in Hollywood with her mother (Annette Bening) to live the life of a contract star in Hughes’ roster, though almost immediately the arrangement appears less glamorous than originally promised. There is a beautiful house, a guaranteed stipend regardless of work performed and Frank’s services as a personal chauffeur. But face-to-face meetings with Hughes are virtually nonexistent, contracts are lowered out of windows onto the street to be signed and no real film work ever appears to get done. Marla never receives a screen test until she complains, but it is quickly apparent there is no film on the horizon.

Rules Don’t Apply
PG-13, 126 minutes
Violet Crown Cinema and Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Frank, meanwhile, is an aspiring real estate developer who hopes to use his new position to gain Hughes’ trust and investment in a promising plot of land. The chemistry between Marla and Frank is palpable, but both are under contract to not engage in romantic relationships, as they are often reminded by coworker Levar (Matthew Broderick). It is Marla who writes a song inspired by Frank’s motivational words to her, “You’re an exception. The rules don’t apply to you.”

Hughes, the inspiration for the film and the man who brought these characters together, is largely absent for the first half hour or so of Rules Don’t Apply—fitting not only for his character but for the title, as he is a man who lives his life without the burden of any rules on behavior. A meeting between Hughes and Marla seems promising, but torn alliances and diverging ambitions complicate matters beyond repair. Beatty shows some affinity with the eccentric recluse, even if their biographies could not be more different. Discussions of legacy and immortality appear throughout, and it is only in these moments that the frenetic pace slows down and makes us listen instead of merely observing.

Rules Don’t Apply is an amiable and thoughtful look at the ways social and legal constraints can interfere with our ability to lead a happy, safe life, especially when they exist to do just the opposite. The lack of a central idea becomes apparent when the film veers between fiction and docudrama without committing to either, as whatever message Beatty wants to convey becomes muddled. Though not a full return to form, it is a return nonetheless, and a bad Beatty movie is still better than most. The rules don’t apply to him, either.

Playing this week

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Allied, Almost Christmas, Arrival, Bad Santa 2, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Doctor Strange, The Edge of Seventeen, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Hacksaw Ridge, Moana, Trolls

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
Allied, Arrival, Bad Santa 2, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Hacksaw Ridge, The Handmaiden, Loving, Moana, Moonlight, White