What better way to round out the month than with a hectic, over-stuffed biopic about an eccentric billionaire despot who uses his inherited wealth to make a giant mess of things in both the entertainment industry and federal government? Truly, there’s a deep sense of irony in the release date of Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes film, “Rules Don’t Apply.” And yet, it would still be a stinker even if it wasn’t cloaked in a dark shroud of cultural and political relevancy. It’s just that bad.
Beatty, on screen for the first time in 15 years, plays the notoriously weird Hollywood and aviation mogul Hughes in the film, which he directed and co-wrote. He has rounded up every single up-and-coming young actor, his wife Annette Bening, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and no less than four credited film editors to aid in this endeavor, and yet the finished product is still a profoundly annoying and torturously long unstructured meander through five years of Hughes’ life, from 1959 to 1964.
The story concerns two young squires in his charge. Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins are the cute-as-buttons romantic leads, doomed young people who sell their souls to Hughes. Ehrenreich is Frank, a driver for the mogul, and Collins is Marla Mabrey, one of the numerous starlets under contract whom Hughes strings along. Marla’s devout mother Lucy (Bening) is the only person who calls out the troubling, disrespectful behavior of Hughes, and so obviously, she’s quickly dispatched.
Characters and themes aside, “Rules Don’t Apply” is one hot, frantic mess. The efforts of the four editors combined result in an itchy-edit-finger effect, and the film hurtles along at a breakneck pace, slamming from scene to scene, intercutting disparate scenes of Marla and Howard and Frank willy-nilly. This harried editing is underscored by rapid camera movements and the soundtrack, which blares with 10-second long music cues seemingly gleaned from a golden oldies CD Beatty found under his couch. The movie never, ever slows down to breathe, unless it’s to give room to Hughes to wax nostalgic about his life or “Daddy’s company.” It’s a true boor to sit through.
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The film’s one bright spot is Collins, who is Audrey Hepburn-level adorable as the feisty, smart Marla, and proves her fast-talking screwball comedy chops. That’s why it’s all the more a shame to watch her become drunkenly entangled with the increasingly erratic and manipulative Howard. The story arc Beatty imagines for his heroine is disappointing.
A little ditty that Marla plunks out on the piano explains the film’s moral compass — a celebration of those individuals who decide the “rules” don’t apply to them. But if the film is supposed to laud the ways in which maverick Hughes ignored the rules (of the FAA, federal government, banks, etc.), it comes off more as an indictment. Despite a last-ditch Hail Mary feel-good ending supposed to make us sympathize with Hughes, the film is really a cautionary tale about the seductive nature of money and power, and the consequences of entering into an abusive relationship with a mentally ill person for the sake of getting ahead. In that light, “Rules Don’t Apply” proves to be stunningly prescient and a tale we should take to heart.
Rules Don’t Apply
Rated: PG-13 for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements, and drug references. Starring: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich. Director: Warren Beatty. Running time: 126 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Flicks, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.