Sam Reynolds ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Howard Hughes is nothing short of an American legend. Even those who don’t know a thing of the man know the name. Howard Hughes. It just rolls off the tongue. He just sounds like old Hollywood.
For those who are more familiar with Hughes, it isn’t hard to see why so many are infatuated with him. During his time as a film producer from the late 1920’s on, he was one of the most financially successful men in the world, and his fame only grew as his attention shifted to aircrafts and groundbreaking aviation tests. But it’s not his riches or playboy lifestyle that continues to fascinate people to this day (though that sure does help), but his wild and eccentric behavior amongst the fame and fortune. How did Hughes operate? How was he so successful? Was he a genius or a madman?
Rules Don’t Apply doesn’t do much to shed new light on Hughes, but seems more focused on capturing as much of his bizarre personality as possible, which unfortunately leaves us with a muddled and confused film that doesn’t seem all that sure of what it actually wants to say. It is in one part love letter and comedic tribute to the legend, another a dramatic attempt to give us insight on the man, and falls flat in trying to balance both.
Set in 1958, the film follows an aspiring actress and devout Baptist Marla Mabrey (a standout Lily Collins) who arrives to town under contract of the mysterious movie producer Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty). Marla quickly strikes a love interest with her driver, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a clean-as-a-whistle church boy and aspiring businessman also signed under Hughes. However, their romantic feelings must be suppressed as Hughes strictly forbids romantic relationships between his employees, and things only become more complicated and strained as the two develop relationships with Hughes while his behavior becomes more and more unhinged.
One of the biggest issues the film faces is a lack of focus and tone. It begins as a romance with Collins and Ehrenreich at its center, but once Beatty’s Hughes enters, the original story is completely sidelined and forgotten in favor of Ehrenreich becoming Hughes’ faithful assistant, following him as his erratic behavior jeopardizes his company and safety. Marla’s character is more-or-less forgotten in the film’s bulky second act, yet we still get the sense we are supposed to remember her as a vital role to the overall story, even though she is given little-to-no screen time to maintain significance. If the film were to balance focus between Collins and Eldenreich’s characters under Hughes, then perhaps their arc would make a little more sense. But Beatty clearly wanted to make a film about Hughes and Hughes alone, and it makes one wonder the point of including the romance storyline at all, as it is more-or-less forgotten until the final scene, by which point it feels like a complete miss.
The pace of the film also proves problematic. Beatty zips through years of Hughes’ life from a mysterious Hollywood producer to a paranoid recluse, and in consequence zips through the lives of each supporting character as well. There are many compelling subplots and story beats that cannot possibly hit home because they are glanced over in favor of cramming more material in. Martha breaks all her own religious and moral rules in a single night by getting drunk and sleeping with a man, but is given no space to really react, giving her character much less depth than what could have been. Frank splits from his fiancé (a wasted cameo from the talented Taissa Farmiga) of almost twenty years, and we never hear of the subject or his feelings of it again. The film’s message is clear: people do not know who they are or what they are capable of until put under pressure, especially in the cut throat environment of Hollywood. But the real power and connection of that message is never there because of the film’s sprint through events.
Pacing issues plague much of the humor as well, which is a true shame as there is so much blatantly funny material to work with. Beatty clearly is having the time of his life playing Hughes, and it is often a joy watching how much fun he is having on screen. But the film’s funnier moments are wasted because scenes end before we are able to see supporting characters react to Hughes nonsensical behavior, therefore never giving the jokes any room to breath. What’s even more a shame is when we do get to see some reactions to Hughe’s more comical quotes, there is not much direction given to the actors beyond “make blank faces”, which feels like even more a missed opportunity. The funniest moment of the film is hands down credited to comedy veteran Ryan Coogler’s cameo, whose utter disbelief and awe at Hughe’s dangerous flying habits is a glimmer of hope at what the rest of the film could have been if given more space.
Thus, Rules Don’t Apply feels like a series of missed opportunities, from its completely stacked cast given little to nothing to work with (Martin Sheen? Alec Baldwin?! Ed Harris?!?) to it’s few powerful scenes feeling like stand alone moments to carry the movie’s weight. Everyone is clearly here to work with the great Warren Beatty, but by the film’s end one has to wonder what he was trying to say beyond paying tribute to a legend. Perhaps it is impossible to truly capture the sporadic essence of Howard Hughes on the big screen he loved so much, and it’s hard to be mad at the film for trying as hard as it does. If nothing else, Rules Don’t Apply is simply a case to be happy to see Warren Beatty return to cinema after fifteen years. And that isn’t so bad.
Overall Grade: C-
Watch the Trailer: