Director: Warren Beatty
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Warren Beatty, Lily Collins
Warren Beatty is a curious case when it comes to Hollywood stars. He's been a star for 56 years, since Splendor in the Grass, but his output during that time has been relatively minimal, starring in 23 films during that time. For the sake of comparison, his contemporary Jack Nicholson has been a star for 48 years, since the release of Easy Rider, and since then has made 44 movies, with a 45th on the horizon. This isn't to say that Nicholson's filmmography is necessarily better, I'm just saying that there is a heightened level of selectivity to Beatty's output. "Selectivity" might not even be the best word to describe the career of the notoriously fastidious Beatty, who is known for moving slowly on projects before bringing them to fruition. One of those long simmering projects was Rules Don't Apply, which Beatty reportedly spent 40 years working at bringing to the screen. I'm not entirely sure whether the end result suggests that 40 years left it overcooked or still, somehow, undercooked, but Rules Don't Apply doesn't exactly present itself as a film that ever really needed to be made.
Set in 1958 and 1964, Rules Don't Apply sets out to tell one story and then sort of starts telling another instead. What seems, at first, to be the story is that of Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), an aspiring songwriter from Virginia who is "discovered" by Howard Hughes (Beatty) and invited to come to Hollywood and become an actress, complete with an RKO contract and a salary of $400 per week. Marla arrives with her mother (Annette Bening) and is met by her new driver, Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), and waits for her opportunity to finally meet Hughes in person. And she waits. And she waits. And she waits. She also learns that Hughes has as many as 26 other young women that he's placed under contract, each being moved in to her own house, and each granted the use of a personal driver so that Hughes can keep tabs on their whereabouts at all times. To add insult to injury, the film that she's supposedly been brought to Hollywood to make appears to be nothing more than a title as she waits for months without seeing a script or even being brought in for a screen test to get things started.
With nothing to do, Marla strikes up a friendship with Frank who, like her, is devoutly religious (she's a Baptist and he's Methodist, but as her mother assures him, they "forgive him."). Their strict religious beliefs, as well as Hughes' rule that the men he employs are not to become romantically involved with the women who make up his de facto harem, cause them no small amount of anguish as they begin to develop feelings for each other but believe that they can't be together. This section of the film is easily the strongest, largely because it explores something that is rarely (if ever) seen in movies about Hollywood, which is usually depicted as a place where people easily succumb to hedonism once they arrive. The American film industry has always been a place of extremes coexisting, of social/sexual liberation in the lives of the artists and of the conservative leanings of the actual industry itself, where in the days of the studio system, in particular, stars were expected to suggest the glamour of a liberated, celebrity life while still ostensibly personifying the mores of the time. So it's quite different to see a story in which the two characters are actively trying to live up to those high moral standards while navigating life and work in Hollywood, and in which the tension is built largely around the conflict between their religious beliefs and their sexual desires.
If Rules Don't Apply had been content to work with the relatively small scale narrative of two ordinary people, in an admittedly extraordinary circumstance, trying to negotiate how they might build a future together, it could have been a compelling enough period drama. But Rules Don't Apply also wants to work in the larger than life narrative of Hughes, whom it introduces in the flesh somewhere around the half hour mark and then gradually allows to take over the narrative completely. As Frank moves up in the world from one of the hired drivers to one of Hughes' closest aides, witnessing his increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior and traveling with him as he moves from place to place, both for the tax benefits and in an attempt to prevent what he sees as a plot to have him declared mentally unfit, Marla practically drops out of the story entirely - albeit with a plot development that ensures she has a reason to come back for the end - to make room for the spectacle of Hughes' hijinks and to awkwardly shoehorn a reference to Clifford Irving's Hughes autobiography hoax (with the author's name and the year of the scandal changed) into the film's framing device.
Although Rules Don't Apply is light in its approach and often fairly funny, its lack of focus ends up killing whatever narrative momentum it might otherwise have had. It starts as a star-crossed romance and then interrupts that to tell something that's like "episodes in the life of a person at the mercy of an eccentric billionaire who may or may not be having a breakdown," and it's an awful lot to ask an audience to care about whether Frank and Marla end up together in the end when five years have elapsed in their time, and the story of their relationship is put on pause less than half-way through the movie. Individual scenes and sequences through the movie work well enough that a movie that was just about Frank and Marla, with Hughes a figure who remains unseen but whose presence is felt throughout the narrative, or a movie that was just about Hughes during his later years, would probably have succeeded. It's the trying to jam these two stories together into some kind of harmony that doesn't work and leaves Rules Don't Apply feeling so wildly uneven and ultimately unsatisfying.