Rules Don’t Apply is Warren Beatty’s first film as a director since Bulworth in 1998 and his first film as an actor since Town & Country in 2001, two stats that suggest Beatty doesn’t have that much interest in working these days. But Beatty has always been selective, as evidenced by a relatively thin filmography that has more undeniable classics that most actors with twice as many films to their name and a pretty good record as a director, too. It also means that the films that don’t work tend to fall into the “interesting misfire” category, but even these often deserve a second look. (Ishtar became synonymous with failure in the ’80s, but it’s a lot more entertaining than its reputation.) Not taking everything you’re offered frees you up to make Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Parallax View, and Shampoo in a single decade when you do work.
The long-gestating Rules Don’t Apply, however, belongs on the “interesting misfire” pile. Born of Beatty’s long interest in making a film about Howard Hughes, it’s an odd mix of biopic and romantic comedy that moves at a race car’s pace but doesn’t quite know where it wants to go. It’s never dull and or less-than-stylish, thanks in large part to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s masterful evocation of classic Hollywood style and the lush period production. It’s one of those movies that feels like its world extends far beyond the boundaries of what we see on screen. A clearly personal work with some obvious connections to the Hollywood of Beatty’s youth and his long stint as the town’s most high profile ladies’ man, it’s bubbly one moment and borderline tragic the next. The film struggles figuring out what it’s trying to say but it does so with a lot of craftsmanship and panache. Call it pleasantly unsatisfying.
It also serves as a reminder of how deft and charming Beatty can be as an actor, and how skilled he is at using those traits to skirt expectations. His Hughes lives in a cloistered world filled with people so awed by him — his reputation, his mystique, and his money — they can’t always see him clearly. Alden Ehrenreich (late of Hail, Caesar! and soon to play Han Solo), plays Frank Forbes, an aspiring entrepreneur who serves as part of Hughes’ fleet of drivers. He’s intent on getting Hughes to invest in a parcel of land, and so impressed by his employer’s reputation that it takes a while to see that his eccentricities have started to overwhelm his acumen.
Similarly overwhelmed: Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a small-town pageant winner who joins a coterie of aspiring starlets on Hughes’ payroll, preparing for a movie that Hughes apparently has no intention of ever making. She attends classes, keeps to a strict schedule, draws a good salary, and lives in a nice apartment overlooking the Hollywood Bowl, but it’s a luxurious limbo. Hughes’ drivers whisk her from place to place, including Frank, with whom she finds he has an easy rapport. But their budding romance faces impediments: She’s a strict Baptist. He’s an only slightly less strict Methodist. And, most imposing of all, Hughes forbids romantic relationships between his employees.
Beatty has long talked about making a film about Hughes, and the film feels like the result of decades of thinking about the subject. It’s filled with odd details, like Hughes’ fixation on a particular flavor of Baskin-Robbins ice cream, an obsession that sends those who work for him scrambling to secure it at all costs only then watch as their boss loses interest. The best scenes dig into Hughes’ odd behavior and attempt to understand it. Called into action in the middle of the night, Frank finds himself taking a long stroll with Hughes that suggests he hasn’t entirely lost his ability to bond with others. But Hughes’ interactions with Marla suggest just the opposite: Summoning her to a hotel room he keeps for such occasions, he serves her a TV dinner and makes awkward conversation. For anyone else, it would be a disastrous encounter. But Beatty plays Hughes as a man not used to being judged like everyone else and Marla leaves more intrigued than disturbed.
As a depiction of the way wealth and fame can distort reality, it’s often effective, particularly when Beatty lets notes of loneliness and despair creep into what’s fundamentally a comic take on Hughes. He’s so deep in the bubble of the life he’s carved out for himself that he doesn’t realize how close he’s come to losing it all. But it’s those same dark notes that keep the film from working as a romantic comedy. What kind of romance can develop when an unstable man’s eccentric whims can undo it at any moment? Even when Beatty the filmmaker tries to keep the mood light, the darkness at the heart of his character keeps creeping in to upset it. There’s a truly memorable film about a man who doesn’t understand he wields the power to destroy lives, and destruction created by that somewhere in the middle of Rules Don’t Apply. It’s just hard to see for the froth sometimes.