Warren Beatty salutes Howard Hughes in gauzy, farcical rom-com
Rules Don’t Apply
Starring Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Warren Beatty & Matthew Broaderick
Directed by Warren Beatty
In theaters Nov. 23, 2016
Warren Beatty’s long-awaited Howard Hughes movie is a nostalgic love letter to old Hollywood, a farcical rom-com about a couple of young Tinseltown transplants and a semi-sympathetic portrait of one of 20th century America’s most famous, successful and eccentric business tycoons.
Howard Hughes was a huge deal back in the previous century. His tremendous wealth, high-profile enterprises, dashing daredevil antics and widely reported quirks made him one of the most famous personalities on the planet until his death in 1976. He made headlines and newsreels as a do-er, dreamer, inventor, movie mogul, Las Vegas developer and aviation pioneer.
Actor-director Warren Beatty caught a rare, fleeting glimpse of Hughes in a Hollywood hotel in the early 1970s and vowed to make a movie about him. He’s been chipping away at it ever since.
In Rules Don’t Apply, set in the late 1950s, Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a young, devoutly religiously beauty queen from Virginia, is summoned to Hollywood to become one of Hughes’ female contract players at RKO, the movie studio he took over in 1948. She and her overly protective mother (Annette Bening, Beatty’s wife) are assigned a lavish house in the Hollywood Hills and provided studio transportation. Fresh-faced Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), himself a Hollywood greenhorn just off the farmlands of Fresno and also a Sunday-go-to-church kind of guy, is appointed as one of their drivers.
Marla discovers she’s among the many young female hopefuls under contract to Hughes, a well-known Hollywood womanizer. But even though she’s paid well and treated royally, she’s dismayed when days—then weeks—go by and she doesn’t get to meet her famous boss and benefactor, doesn’t get a screen test and doesn’t get any sign that her Hollywood career is going anywhere.
She laments that she doesn’t look like the other—mostly blonde, all busty—starlets, doesn’t feel worldly and with-it like them, and, as more of a musician and songwriter, she’s not even really an actress. “I’m a square,” she pouts.
Frank consoles her, tells not to worry about everyone else. “You’re an exception,” he says. “The rules don’t apply to you.”
Love blossoms between Frank and Marla. But it whirls and swirls around Hughes, who’s given a gauzy, wistful gloss-over by Beatty, who also directed, co-produced and wrote the screenplay. This movie feels like a project he’s been thinking about, and working on, for a long time: It’s jam-packed with nearly everything and everyone. Matthew Broderick is Levar, Frank’s fellow driver who warns him to keep his hands off the movie “merchandise,” since Hughes prohibits any employee hanky-panky. There’s Candace Bergen, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, Amy Madigan, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Alec Baldwin and Paul Sorvino. Watch for Haley Bennett, from The Girl on the Train and The Magnificent Seven, and Broadway actress Megan Hilty, as other contract players.
The movie meanders through several themes and ideas—daddy issues, the splash of Frank and Marla’s puritanical upbringings in Hollywood’s cauldron of vice, and Hughes’ various quirks, fetishes and fixations. Award-winning cinematographer Caleb Deschanel washes them all in the same gorgeous, golden tones that got him Oscar nominations for The Right Stuff, The Passion of the Christ, The Natural and The Patriot, making the whole film glow like a time capsule from a L.A.’s picture-postcard past. The details—Rayon fabrics, rabbit-ear TV antennas, clunky rotary phones, big shiny tank-like Buicks, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles—are pure eye candy.
Lily Collins, the daughter of pop star Phil Collins, who launched her movie career as the teenage daughter in The Blind Side (2009), is radiant as Marla, with the freshness and spark of a young Elizabeth Taylor, especially in adoring close-ups. One of the movie’s sweetest spots is when her character sings “Rules Don’t Apply” (by Lorraine Feather and Eddie Arkin), the tune Marla is inspired to write based on Frank’s advice that becomes the movie’s theme and its theme song.
And Alden Ehrenreich, who was a standout as singing sodbuster Hobie Doyle in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, has the chiseled, classic looks of a 1950s leading man, as if he were sculpted specifically for his role. For one of his next ones, he’ll be fast-forwarding into the future as the new Han Solo in the Star Wars’ character’s origin story, due in theaters in 2018.
Beatty, himself a Hollywood living legend, has more than 30 film and TV roles to his credit, including Bonnie and Clyde, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Dick Tracy, Bulworth and Reds, for which he received an Oscar for directing. Even with Collins and Ehrenreich, this is still his movie through and through, and it all revolves around the sad, odd gravity of its soft-focused central character, a man who loved women, airplanes and banana nut ice cream and who lived out his final days in strange shadows of seclusion and self-isolation as a prisoner of his obsessions, phobias and kinks.
At one point in the film, there’s comedic confusion about an actress whose initials are MM—is it Marla Mabrey, or another Hughes contract player, or Marilyn Monroe? It’s sorted out onscreen, but the bigger issue for today’s multiplex crowd—especially younger viewers—will be with another pair of initials. To really appreciate Beatty’s passion project, it would help to be old enough to remember something about HH and all the hoopla and the hype that became part of his personal history.
One of Hughes’ most publicized projects was the so-called Spruce Goose, a gigantic transport seaplane made entirely of wood, born from the need to move troops and materials across the Atlantic Ocean during World War II. The task was made even more challenging by wartime shortages of steel and aluminum.
Skeptics doubted the Goose, six times bigger than any other airplane of its era, would ever fly. But it did, for one flight at an altitude of 70 feet, for one minute. After proving it could at least do what it was designed to do, it was done, spending the rest of days in hangars and never flying again.
Rules Don’t Apply also does, at least, what it was designed to do, fulfilling Beatty’s quest begun 40 years ago. But also like the Goose, it’s a big, cumbersome, well-intentioned project that just gets off the ground but never really soars, and it’s probably not going to go very far with contemporary audiences.
—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine