FILM REVIEW – RULES DON’T APPLY. With Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Warren Beatty, Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen. Written and directed by Warren Beatty. Rated PG-13 for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements, and drug references. 110 minutes.
Warren Beatty, who turns 80 next year, has had as fascinating a career as any Hollywood star, both in front of and behind the camera. From landmark films like “Bonnie and Clyde,” to films that caught the mood of an era like “Shampoo” and “Bulworth,” from the epic sweep of “Reds” to one of the most notorious flops in movie history with “Ishtar,” what Warren Beatty did mattered. That seemed to come to an end with the now largely forgotten “Town & Country” (2001). It was, perhaps, not the note he wanted to end his movie career on.
So fifteen years later we get RULES DON’T APPLY, a curiosity that can’t seem to figure out the story it wants to tell. Beatty shares story credit with veteran Bo Goldman, but takes sole screenwriting credit as well as directs, so the lack of clarity is on him. The story involves Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a young songwriter and actress who has been signed to Howard Hughes’ studio, RKO. There she languishes along with many others, wondering if they’ll ever meet Hughes (Beatty), much less get a screen test. After her mother (Annette Bening in one of the film’s many cameo roles) leaves, her primary human companionship is her driver, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich).
There are two problems with that. First, Hughes has a strict rule that none of his employees are allowed personal relations with any of the starlets under contract. Second, even if they decide to skirt the matter, she’s a devout (and quite virginal) Baptist and he’s engaged to his childhood sweetheart and is a Methodist. Much of the film is devoted to getting the two of them together and then they (and, frankly, we) trying to decide if that makes sense.
Meanwhile Hughes, the mysterious billionaire, gets to know the two of them in a series of halting scenes. She wants to get the promised screen test. He wants to interest Hughes in investing in a real estate deal. In the end, no one seems to get what they were expecting. Part of the problem is that this isn’t the dynamic Hughes that Leonard DiCaprio played for much of “The Aviator,” but the reclusive and eccentric man of his later years. Beatty has always had a fascination with characters grappling with fame or power, but he can’t seem to get a handle on Hughes. It’s not clear why the others in the film fall under his spell when the evidence is all around them that it’s not worth it.
Collins and Ehrenreich can’t quite make their tenuous relationship dynamic enough to carry the film and so we’re left with everyone following Hughes around, or waiting for Hughes (sometimes in vain), or finally giving up. Matthew Broderick plays the man who enforces the rules on the drivers but then is seen trying to break them himself. Is he the fool for doing so or is Hughes the fool for trusting him?
With no real point of view, we’re left watching familiar faces pop up in small roles, like Candice Bergen, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, Amy Madigan, Alec Baldwin, Oliver Platt, and several others. Beatty apparently took his title–and the film’s theme song–“Rules Don’t Apply” and decided that rules like solid storytelling and sensible casting didn’t apply to him. The result is a film that’s not unwatchable, but it’s hardly the capstone of a distinguished career either.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.