‘Rules Don’t Apply’
Director: Warren Beatty
Stars: Warren Beatty, Alden Ehrenreich
4 (out of 5) Globes
Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes movie may have been a passion project, talked up for decades, but the end result plays like a deranged fever dream. It gives off the air of being haphazardly made on the fly, not meticulously stewed-upon for ages. But don’t confuse chaos for confusion. It may look like a mess but it’s ever so tightly controlled. Beatty, an infrequent but forward-thinking filmmaker with only five films to his name, seems to have been trying to make a film about collective insanity that felt itself insane. It offers untold grist for Golden Age Hollywood fanatics, but it might work better as a madcap, breakneck office comedy, one where the boss just happens to be Howard Goddamned Hughes.
Of course, movies about Hollywood don’t come any more loaded than “Rules Don’t Apply.” Here’s Warren Beatty, aging stud, AWOL from screens since 2001’s “Town & Country,” making a movie about and starring as one of the 20th century’s most iconic recluses. Beatty delays his entrance 25 whole minutes, and enters with his wrinkly faced covered in shadows. Before then his frenzied employees talk about him like he was Harry Lime, only a Harry Lime whose whereabouts where always known. The story starts in the 1950s, with Hughes already well-established as an eccentric billionaire with enough money to command any fool thing he wants — be it rows of bottled water from Maine, stacked atop a television set, or a truckload of banana nut ice cream shipped to the desert, because he’s recently decided that’s his flavor. His employees are beyond frazzled, but they know the drill. They even like it, or at least are so committed to this particular strain of working they don’t think they can do anything else.
We get two audience surrogates into this mad, mad, mad, mad world. First, there’s Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a fresh-faced nice kid who can’t believe he’s working as a driver for one of the planet’s most famous men. He’s tasked with driving not Hughes but Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), the latest member of what amounts to Hughes’ sexless harem of young beauties. With Marla they now number 26, all of them given their own Hollywood Hills homes, sitting around waiting for … who knows what? There’s talk of screen tests for some mystery Hughes movie. But he’s in no apparent rush to make it. When Marla is suddenly fetched to meet Hughes, she finds herself in a darkened hotel room, sitting several feet from him, the two eating meals wrapped in aluminum foil on TV tray tables, not really talking about anything. Before anything’s been made clear, he leaves the room.
“Rules Don’t Apply” lets us suss out deeper truths about the mysterious draw of Hollywood, which even in 1964 was dying, to be replaced by a new studio system that bore little resemblance to the old. It lets us tease out ideas about modern Hollywood, where one of the great legends of the screen has to eke out a modest budget to make a film largely confined to hotel rooms. Rather than let the lack of pomp get him down, Beatty seems to thrive on it. He rubs our noses in driving scenes with obvious rear projection, amps up our unease by frequently ending scenes a couple beats too early, delights in random cameos (Alec Baldwin, who was also in Martin Scorsese's own Hughes film, "The Aviator"), even throws in deafening song montages that abruptly end after five seconds. Hughes’ world is one that sounds more extravagant than it is; if there’s money it’s not always visible. It’s filled with stressed-out minions and odd obsessions. Like a certain current public figure, he can still lure people to his beck and call using only his name, even if everyone knows the man behind it is deeply unhinged.
It’s telling that Frank and Marla don’t spend the movie acting like mere tabula rasas. They drink the Kool-Aid right away, blabbering to each other about what a great man their employer is, how they can’t wait for whatever he supposedly has in store for them. They know that their contracts dictate that them hooking up is punishable by termination; even when they can’t help themselves, they immediately snap back in line, pretending it never happened. They behave like two cult members afraid of banishment. Hollywood and fame and wealth is just that powerful, and it takes a long, long, miserable time for them to grow disillusioned.
Once they do they conform to a more traditional Hollywood movie — the starry-eyed romance — that “Rules Don’t Apply” has cheerfully avoided. This is a crazy film, filled with scenes of shouting and bickering and, in one showstopper, Hughes treating a journalist (Steve Coogan) to a cruise in the Spruce Goose that goes hilariously awry, early and often. The real centerpiece, though, finds Hughes juggling multiple parties at once, from a champagne-guzzling Marla to businessmen (led by Oliver Platt) who’ve spent days sitting around, waiting for a call Hughes never wants to make. It’s reminiscent of a similar scene in “Bugsy,” starring Beatty but directed by Barry Levinson. This time Beatty has the reins, and he pushes it into an almost abstract extended slapstick sequence, one that goes on so long that its length becomes part of the joke.
There’s a scene early on that suggests a different “Rules Don’t Apply” than we got. Frank is sent to pick up Marla from a private airport. A woman gets off the plane. She’s played by no less than Annette Bening. Frank thinks she’s Hughes’ new ladyfriend. Bening replies that, no, she’s just the mother. That Beatty would have his own wife — 21 years his junior, incidentally — appear as the woman too old for a rich, wealthy, aging man implies a safer, more Hollywood insider film is on the way. Instead, Beatty gives us something truly crazy — a movie unlike any other, to be honest.