Rules Don’t Apply
Warren Beatty’s swansong, so it seems. But given that everything he’s made since Bulworth – only Town & Country and this, as it happens – has stiffed, he might have been better going out on a high back in ’98. On the other hand, he might have been even wiser still to call it quits after Reds, and the only great loss would have been the one where he gets to rap (atrociously). But Warren had an itch to scratch on the Howard Hughes front, and it had been festering for decades. The result is a misfire, most definitely, and one suspects the strange structure – a couple of youngsters are the romantic leads while the increasingly erratic Hughes holds court from the side lines – is a consequence of the director-writer-producer-star prevaricating for too damn long. And yet, he’s on undeniably good form in Rules Don’t Apply.
Good old form. Beatty was nigh-on eighty when the movie came out, playing a man two decades younger. A very similar disparity, perhaps not coincidentally, between his being two decades too old for Bugsy Siegel in 1991. That was actually more glaring, though, since Warren’s a reasonably robust octogenarian. Although, in the early stages, with him gauzed by Caleb Deschanel’s sensitive cinematography or draped in bandages, you wonder if he isn’t doing anything and everything he can to avoid the camera interrogating him in the most unflattering manner. He is, after all, so vain.
It’s a curiously off-kilter tone he strikes too. His Hughes is someone he wants you to like, even as Howard is insufferably eccentric in his demands for banana nut ice cream and dangerous flying. Beatty offers a particularly unpleasant seduction sequence in which Hughes has his way with young contract would-be starlet Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), the latter entirely inebriated (the 2016 Alliance of Women Film Journalists EDA Awards – yeah, I know right, how come they aren’t really famous – awarded the movie the Most Egregious Age Difference Between The Lead and The Love Interest, highlighting the 52 years between Beatty and Collins; it won). Nothing terrible there, if he’s intent on critiquing the man, but the picture is so lightweight, it comes across as if he’s entirely ambivalent towards Hughes and his misdeeds.
Amusingly, there’s absolutely zero chemistry between Hollywood’s antiquated lothario and Collins. The latter is fine, but her retro, ingenue-sullied character isn’t an entirely becoming one, even when she gets knocked up and retorts by having the baby. Alden Ehrenreich, cancelled by fanboys everywhere for daring to be Han, fares much better as one of Hughes’ drivers. Indeed, I could see him playing Ray Liotta in another twenty years, once disenchantment and boozes soaks in.
Neither of these characters are terribly interesting when it comes down to it, though. Their forbidden – by possessive Hughes – romance is also curiously defiled by Beatty by having Ehrenreich’s Frank Forbes come in his pants when they first make out. It’s Warren’s way of ensuring the young pretender, even fictionalised, is no match for him, even if he walks away with the girl and the kid (which anyway, Warren wouldn’t want until he was another twenty years older than Frank).
As ever, Beatty has corralled an extraordinary complement of supporting players, including wifey, Alec Baldwin – not quite so extraordinary, since he’s contractually bound to appear in everything somewhere – Candice Bergen, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, Dabney Coleman, Oliver Platt (back for more after Bulworth) and Steve “serious business, comedy” Coogan. Matthew Broderick fares best, though, as Hughes’ meticulously devoted dogsbody Levar Mathis, waiting on his master hand and foot until finally he snaps (and then goes back for more). It plays well on Broderick’s innately likable subservience (even if we may never get to the bottom of that ’80s auto accident).
There’s some forgettable nonsense about Frank trying to get Hughes to sign on a land deal, while there’s an ongoing case concerning Hughes lunacy involving TWA. Beatty the writer’s problem is that he allows the picture to be all quirk, so there’s insufficient connective tissue to make that quirk work. Want to see some slapstick electric bed adjustment and Frank faced with performing an enema on his boss? And, being a nutter, Hughes tells us “No one has done more than I have to rid Hollywood of communists” or “clarify the extreme danger any Americans will face living near a nuclear test site”.
Beatty’s clearly enjoying himself, but it isn’t enough. He ought really to have made a movie of the Gemstone File, which posits that Aristotle Onassis kidnapped Howard Hughes in 1957; Hughes was held prisoner, suffered a massive brain injury and was regularly injected with morphine while Onassis took over his business affairs (subsequently, Onassis put the assassination of JFK into effect). Perhaps it’s too outré for Hollywood. Instead, we got a rather rote good-boy-Scorsese biopic, and this peculiarly shaped dumpling.
Beatty tended to fare best when he was espousing a cause in whatever way, and flounder when he attempted to maximise his commerciality (critically, at any rate). Rules Don’t Apply is about someone who means a lot to him, but he ends up making it about nothing very much. Cynical as Bulworth was, it was an undiluted ad for Beatty’s brand of pure socialism, one he likely – due to blinkered vanity, natch – doesn’t realise is part of the globalist plot. Or maybe he does, despite enjoying the rep of an obsessive eccentric. He does, after all have his very own transgender offspring, thus ticking the requisite boxes for Hollywood slaves from fame to grave.
Perhaps Rules Don’t Apply was in his contract with the devil, rather like Dylan trotting out again to pay his dues. If so, Beatty might have the last laugh on those who persuaded themselves (like Arnon Milchan) to back him. He leaves a slender legacy – fifteen movies since Bonnie and Clyde, exactly four of which you could call better than good – but that’s what comes of being obsessive-compulsive, like his hero Howard, an old breed of hero. There was never a chance he would have signed on for Kill Bill. He wouldn’t have been calling any shots.