I’ll be honest, this review may be a pointless endeavor since I, for the life of me, cannot figure this movie out. I guess that’s as good a way to sum it up as any. Perhaps it’s best just to say that “Rules Don’t Apply” is an extremely odd and downright flabbergasting film.
The best comparison I can make is to David O. Russell’s “Joy” from last year. In both cases, it feels like there’s a good movie in there somewhere, but that film got lost somewhere down the road. Both films feel like their respective writer-directors wrote one very rushed draft of the script, filmed based on that, and sent the footage off to the four (four!) editors. And none of the editors were allowed to creatively coordinate or were told what Beatty/Russell was going for with the film. And then the studio accidentally released the rough cut of the film, or the director didn’t make any subsequent polished versions and just declared “Screw it! Put it out there!”
If this doesn’t sound like your type of movie, it probably isn’t. If you’re anything like my movie going companions (which you likely are), stay away. And yet, I find myself unable to wholly condemn it. If you’re a cinephile, that description I gave above may be even more of a reason to see it. Film students may want to watch it as an example of what not to do. There’s a fascination in seeing messes such as this. Like hate watching the “The Room.” It’s a thirty-car-pileup disaster, but what’s that thing about car wrecks? They’re horrible, but you can’t look away? This may be the first Hollywood movie I can think of that has that same hilarious hate-watch appeal.
Directed by Warren Beatty, “Rules” tells the story of a young couple falling for each other under the employ of the legendary Howard Hughes (Beatty). Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) is an aspiring actress who’s come to Hollywood under contract to Hughes, while Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenriech) is Marla’s driver, who is working for Hughes hoping to meet him and sell him on a business deal involving suburbanizing parts of Southern California. Despite their obvious attraction to one another, they are forbidden from becoming romantically involved due to the strict rules Hughes lays down for his employees and the control he exerts over the many actresses he has under contract. The movie chugs along in this romantic-comedy mode until about a third of the way through, when the focus moves to Hughes and his eventful later life.
You have to give Beatty credit for doing something so amusingly perverse as making the Howard Hughes movie he’s been talking up for nearly 40 years primarily about two fictional lovebirds under Hughes employ, one where the reclusive billionaire is a supporting character for most of the movie that’s ostensibly about him. You’d think this would have been a more traditional biopic. Kudos to Beatty for at least recognizing that we’ve already had that with Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” and at least trying something different.
It’s also simultaneously frustrating and mesmerizing how all over the place the film is, and not just in terms of plot. At first, it seems like Beatty is exploring religion, then social attitudes toward sex, then the film becomes about business and capitalism, then it’s an examination of the weight of celebrity and public perception. Perhaps this is why the film feels so all over the place; it’s trying to be many different movies, but Beatty had to get it down to 2 hours and threads got lost or muddled.
Or maybe the film truly is about Hughes after all, to the degree that it emulates his erratic personality. One moment it’s brilliantly lucid and charming, the next it’s chaotic, perplexing, neurotic, and incomprehensible. Beatty reportedly identifies quite strongly with Hughes, so maybe he has pulled off the greatest feat of method acting in the history of cinema, to the point that it becomes a kind of method directing, his character seeping in the very fabric of the film itself. I don’t know how others will come to regard this film; it might become a misunderstood classic in the future. I guess I’m just glad it wasn’t as conventional as it could have been.