Warren Beatty’s first onscreen appearance in 15 years and his first directorial effort since Bulworth would be met with fairly lofty expectations but knowing how long he has been gone, there’s a question being raised by what effect has his own absence laid upon what more he could do. Did this story about Howard Hughes come so many years too late? What exactly was he aiming for with Rules Don’t Apply? Was it a romantic comedy, a satire about the Hollywood studio system like how Bulworth (I’m one of the few that considers this to be his best film as a director) was for the political climate at the time? I’m still unsure what it was that Warren Beatty even wanted to tell with Rules Don’t Apply and it’s disappointing when one comes to consider the wonderful talent he has put on display all his career.
This film tells the story of an elderly Howard Hughes as played by Warren Beatty and a young actress as the two of them share an affair forbidden by the employers of both. There’s a commentary that Beatty could have laced this story within because of how scandalous this affair could end up appearing inside of another set of eyes, but I’m not even sure if he wants to get it out to the viewers. Instead, because of the setting what I get from how Beatty handles the relationship between Hughes and Lily Collins’s Marla Mabrey is something that finds itself more under the lines of a romantic screwball comedy and it’s so unfitting on a tonal note. There are many moments that seem to make their own callings back towards the wonderful romantic comedies of Howard Hawks but considering the sort of story Beatty is trying to tell it only succeeds in creating a feeling of discomfort rather than joy.
The whole time, Rules Don’t Apply seems to struggle even with trying to establish the sort of film that it wants to be and yet, this isn’t even the most grating thing about the film. Beatty’s directing was never without its own flaws no matter what film it was but there was always a sense that whatever stories he told knew what they wanted to be, but given as Rules Don’t Apply has come so many years later into his own career as both a director and an actor, it seems like we’re left with too many different sorts of films all at once as made clear by the film’s jarring editing style. At one point it seems to have something to say about the industry where it is set, but that then the next edit cuts back to a sex scene between Beatty and Collins (not even the most unsettling aspect of their relationship, but I won’t get into spoiler territory) and this adds to the film’s own lack of coherence which becomes especially grating.
I would at least find myself able to appreciate the way Warren Beatty is directing his actors for in Rules Don’t Apply he churns out a good performance in himself but the cast he has assembled is already a noticeably spotty one. Lily Collins is still bland as ever and Matthew Broderick’s appearances ultimately offer no significance at all, but at least he knew where and when to use Alden Ehrenreich and Annette Bening (something unsurprising to me because of his own marriage to her). But just like most of the film, there’s nothing really to write home about when speaking of the cast because even the best members feel as if they are just phoned into the background rather than becoming caricatures in themselves. Even in a bloated romantic epic like Reds, Beatty knew not to let the scale overwhelm his actors but in Rules Don’t Apply, a much smaller film, I’m not even sure he retained that.
What’s most grating about Rules Don’t Apply falls where the music cues come up because like the editing, they only find themselves meeting an abrupt end and they end up making the film’s lack of coherence all the more noticeable. Aside from that there’s already a great feeling that the film’s length can come right at you as you continue watching but ultimately, this doesn’t even mean anything more for the film’s end because of what it is that Beatty is turning Howard Hughes’s story into. He takes what could easily form an intriguing commentary on the state of romantic affairs in the industry that Hollywood is, and soon turns it into a romantic screwball comedy along the lines of Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. Which necessarily shouldn’t be a bad thing for any other romantic comedy but considering the nature of the story being told it only makes for a watch all the more unsettling.
Rules Don’t Apply isn’t a particularly harmful film but it has indeed managed to become both an unsettling one and a baffling one, because one must wonder how all of these years of absence have managed to affect Warren Beatty in such a manner. Although it’s nice to see him return to the screen once and for all there’s a greater disappointment coming when considering the sort of movie that it could have been, because Rules Don’t Apply ultimately finds itself to be a confused mess all across the board. Is it a romantic comedy set during Hollywood, is it a biopic about Howard Hughes that just failed to do the man justice? I guess it’s only fitting that Warren Beatty named the film as is because the rules certainly didn’t find themselves applying when it came to assembling a product of coherence, but no matter what sort of film this was supposed to become, I could not care any less which saddens me.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Fox.
Directed by Warren Beatty
Screenplay by Warren Beatty
Produced by Warren Beatty, Brett Ratner, Molly Conners, Steve Bing
Starring Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich
Release Year: 2016
Running Time: 126 minutes