Warren Beatty is both the perfect person and the worst person possible to have made Rules Don’t Apply, his concoction about reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, now out on DVD and Blu-Ray.
He’s perfect because at some molecular level, Beatty knows what it’s like to be the center of a universe, the focus of everyone’s attention and adoration — and the craziness that such a position can all too easily breed. The DVD and Blu-Ray includes a “making of” featurette which reveals that Beatty has been working on the movie since at least 2009. Maybe you can see how Beatty identifies with Hughes, who famously delayed the release of finished films like The Outlaw until they were (in his mind anyway) perfected.
He’s the worst choice because he’s simply not a good enough actor, director, and screenwriter to make an interesting movie about such a character. Beatty has given some passable performances under others’ direction (Splendor in the Grass, The Parallax View), but try as he might, he can’t make Howard Hughes the simultaneously frightening, pathetic yet charming figure he needs to be for this movie to work.
The weakness of Beatty’s performance, combined with a repetitive, meandering script, makes the other characters’ ongoing loyalty to the Hughes character even more problematic than it should be for the story to work.
This is late-ish Hughes, mostly late 1950s with framing scenes in the mid-1960s. It’s well past the 1930s-40s era of Martin Scorsese’s far superior The Aviator, with Leonardo DiCaprio as a youngish Hughes, but prior to the full-on crazy of Jason Robards’ bearded desert rat in Jonathan Demme’s Melvin & Howard. Hughes is unimaginably rich and already quite “eccentric” (that’s what they call rich people when they are looney-tunes). By exerting maniacal control over who can actually see him face to face — a shrinking group of exasperated loyalists and flunkies — Hughes keeps the world, the press, and various business associates guessing as to whether he’s a genius, a mad genius, or just mad.
When Beatty’s Hughes does appear, it’s almost always nighttime or he’s in a conveniently darkened room. Like Blanche Du Bois, Hughes/Beatty shrinks from the harsh light of day that will show off just how old and frail he has become.
It’s too bad, because when he does finally show himself more fully, in the film’s final scenes, it’s some of Beatty’s best work. The ex-sex symbol needs to embrace his old age, not hide from it.
Rules Don’t Apply is a kind of perverse love triangle with Hughes, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), and Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) at its points. She’s a religious, highly principled virgin who wants to make a career in Hollywood. Marla has been placed under personal contract to Hughes, who at this time owned RKO Studio. But the ever-distracted Hughes doesn’t make movies any more (Rules keeps showing him obsessively watching his breakthrough picture, Hell’s Angels, which was made in 1930). He just likes having control over a gaggle of young women, keeping them on a string with promises of screen tests and stardom but mostly ignoring them.
Frank starts out as one of Hughes’ fleet of drivers, but he moves up to become a sort of admirer/protégé. He’s ambitious and wants Hughes to invest in suburban real estate, but then, like a mongoose hypnotized by a cobra, he can’t seem to work his way free of Hughes’ spell. Again, this would be more plausible if Beatty had hired a better actor to play Hughes: Robert De Niro could have nailed this.
As it is, Ehrenreich gives the film’s best performance. Anyone who saw his delightful turn in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, as a guileless movie cowboy that the studio tries to turn into an urbane, tuxedo-clad leading man, knows he is effortlessly charming and a peerless straight man. His scene with Ralph Fiennes, as a frustrated director trying to get him to say a single line correctly for several tongue-twisting minutes, should be required viewing in every acting class on how to play comedy.
Collins, daughter of musician Phil Collins, is good but rather bland as a straight-laced girl finding her way in Sin City. She’s a victim of the every-which-way script and Beatty’s laissez-faire direction.
Various wonderful character actors (including Oliver Platt, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen, Dabney Coleman, and Alec Baldwin) wander through the movie providing some much-needed comic relief. Annette Bening, as Marla’s suspicious mom, is as usual terrific but is written out of the story too quickly. Matthew Broderick, as one of Frank’s fellow Hughes flunkies, turns in one of his least annoying performances in recent years: he’s especially good when he finally loses it and calls Hughes old and deaf (both of which he is). Combined with his quasi-creepy turn in Manchester By The Sea, I think from now on Broderick should only take parts where his character is barely likeable.
If there’s anything Rules Don’t Apply does well, it’s provide a portrait of what it’s like to work for a vain, paranoid, easily distracted monster who thinks he knows everything. Maybe Warren can play 45 in the inevitable movie of his life. They could save a couple of bucks and just re-use the same title.