2016 AFI FILM FESTIVAL: Warren Beatty‘s haphazard “Rules Don’t Apply” is a screwball dramedy that plays like a direct-to-video sequel to Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator.” Where that film provides honest penetration into the depravity of wily tycoon Howard Hughes, this cinematic farce exploits for amusement. Beatty, doing double duty as writer-director, can’t decide whether the egomaniac he portrays is a petulant man-child or simply misunderstood. Regardless, Hughes winds up becoming the uncomfortable comedic relief who should have remained in the shadows, enigmatic persona intact. The delightful young leads of the movie, Frank Forbes and Marla Mabrey, are weighed down by Hughes’s dreadfully dull tribulations. Sloppily edited and nostalgic to the point of obsession, “Rules Don’t Apply” proves Beatty’s sabbatical has left him disconnected with contemporary filmmaking.
The film begins in the midst of a 1964 press conference attempting to make contact with the reclusive Hughes. Frank Forbes – played by a fiercely determined, if slightly desperate, Alden Ehrenreich – pleads for Hughes to respond to the world. The movie then jumps back to 1958, when Forbes just landed a prominent position as Hughes’ personal driver for the mogul’s contracted actresses. One of these young starlets, Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), fascinates Forbes with her virtuous resolve. Hollywood might be where dreams come true, but Marla isn’t about to compromise her Baptist upbringing to achieve them. Even Marla’s heavily involved mother, Lucy (Annette Bening), isn’t blind to the sexual repayments often made to further one’s career.
Thankfully, Bening departs before making ad nauseam mockery of the “stage mom” trope. “Rules” works best when it ignores Hughes and takes Woody Allen’s approach of basking in the oasis of young love. Collins and Ehrenreich have undeniable onscreen chemistry that helps rectify the script’s insistence on rushing the pair’s romance. Had more time been spent enhancing this love story under siege by Hughes’ pervasive clout, Beatty’s return would have been triumphant. Instead, once Marla and Frank finally encounter their daffy boss, “Rules” becomes one drawn-out “SNL” sketch with minimal consideration for its subject.
Well into the later stages of life, Hughes is in dire need of a miracle. His refusal to meet with investors offering a sizable contribution to his TWA plane modifications leaves him on the verge of financial ruin. Lawsuits and claims of mental incompetence soon jeopardize Hughes’ various company holdings. Trusting drivers Frank and Levar (Matthew Broderick) more than his inner circle of advisers, Hughes decides to promote the chauffeurs. Knowing that he’ll be terminated if he pursues a relationship with Marla, Frank dedicates himself fully to Hughes. Unfortunately, Frank is oblivious to Hughes’ incredulous dalliance with Marla that consequently prompts her swift departure from Tinseltown.
Lily Collins is a sparkling revelation as Marla, realistically depicting the difficulty in negotiating faith with sexual curiosity. One of the rare bright moments in “Rules” witnesses Marla being cherished for her musical intelligence. Marla’s ability to write and subsequently perform a heartfelt original song is more attractive to Frank than her appearance. The film backpedals when it turns this titular tune into a motif that taints its impact with each rendition.
Beatty offers a jovial, less depressing version of Hughes than exhibited by DiCaprio in “The Aviator.” Hughes’ antics are easier to digest in “Rules,” but the surface treatment of a serious mental condition is offensive. Case in point: there’s truly no reason for audiences to guffaw when Hughes goes on one of his Tourette’s episodes. When caricature engulfs a character, they cease to be human. Beatty can still spin a web of charm, but the absence of sensitivity and nuance repels more than engages.
Beatty may be a living legend with an incomparable legacy, but there’s no excusing problematic storytelling. By taking such a comedic stance, “Rules” turns Hughes into a kooky uncle in need of an audience. Instead of soaring the skies, “Rules Don’t Apply” nosedives straight into oblivion. The film’s expected critical slaughtering will deprive it of any serious awards recognition. However, given its tonality, it wouldn’t be shocking to see it up for some Golden Globe mentions.
“Rules Don’t Apply” is distributed by 20th Century Fox and will hit theaters on Nov. 23.