In an instant, Rules Don’t Apply flings us into 1950s Hollywood under the reclusive control of Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty, who also directs), a Hollywood on the verge change. Hughes hires a bevy of young and hopeful starlets and precocious Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) to drive them around the city. Forbes and Hughes both fall into fascination over one of the actresses, Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a virginal and devout Virginian who chose to forego a college education for stardom.
The film’s style begins equally in-your-face as the narrative. Cuts between reaction shots are rapid, disorienting. Sudden flourishes of period appropriate music intrude and then disappear before a meaningful tone can be established from it. The lighting is invasive in its brightness. Everything about the film has an urgency that is unnecessary, breakneck without motivation.
This urgency peters out as the film goes on, particularly once Beatty’s Hughes enters the picture. The editing calms down but remains inconsistent, likely due to the four editors that were hired to put the film together. The lighting turns much darker, almost overly so, as we become fly on the wall to Hughes’ neurotic reclusivity.
Once the film begins taking its time, one can find some fruit in the narrative presented. The concept of a golden age Hollywood romance between two people at the lowly rungs of the totem pole is intriguing, particularly given the intrusiveness of Hughes at the highest rung. Thematics that involve the disconnect between religion and backroom Hollywood politics make for an interesting combination.
However, a struggle for tonal balance renders these themes and plotlines hard to hold onto. The strangely humorous addition of Hughes lessens the strength of the romance plot between Mabrey and Forbes. His character adds a level of raucous humor and strange ruminations that are unfitting amid the romance narrative.
Hughes’ involvement as it pertains to the theme of innocence lost is his only interesting contribution to the picture. Otherwise, he is disposable, a surprising concept given that Beatty’s character dominates the film.
What gives the film a saving grace is the acting core of Ehrenreich, Collins, and Beatty. The charisma on display is refreshing among a lot of inadequacies. Beatty’s ability to balance stern intimidation and rambling neuroticism is great even if his character is a detraction to the heart of the story.
The perky innocence (and the fallout from it) shown by Collins is wonderful, her character arc the only interesting use of character in the film. Ehrenreich’s earnest delivery is good as well, but his character pales in comparison to those around him.
Rules Don’t Apply is a messy film that survives on its actors. The narrative lacks proper establishment, tonal control, and tight scripting. The progression of the story toward an emotional crescendo means little given the looseness of tone and plot up to that point. The humor is made awkward by the earnest romance plot, and the earnestness of the romance plot is made awkward by the humor of Howard Hughes’ increasingly severe tragic flaw.
Like the ramblings out of Howard Hughes’ mouth throughout the film, Rules Don’t Apply is an overlong mess, at times poignant but mostly nonsense strung together in an attempt at something meaningful.
Rules Don’t Apply: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)