Rules Don’t Apply

May 5, 2017
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Does anybody remember Howard Hughes? Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty’s fictionalised portrait of the eccentric billionaire, was reputedly decades in gestation. In the meantime we’ve had The Aviator, Martin Scorsese’s bio pic of Hughes’s early life, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning five. Thirteen years later, and 41 years after his subject’s death, Beatty has finally made the Howard Hughes picture but it may be that the name no longer resonates with audiences.

Beatty won the Oscar for Best Director with only his second effort, Reds (1981). Since then he’s hardly been prolific, with only Dick Tracy (1990), and Bulworth (1998). The latter had plenty of admirers, but that was 18 years ago. Even Beatty’s acting career was put on hold following the box office flop, Town & Country (2001).

All of this qualifies Rules Don’t Apply for those catch-phrases: “long-awaited” and “eagerly anticipated”. But like so many movies that suffer such labels, the final product is slightly disappointing. At two hours and seven minutes it feels too long. Both script and direction could be a lot crisper, even though the 79-year-old Beatty’s own performance as Hughes is a masterclass.

The major narrative strand is the love interest between two repressed young people in 1950s Hollywood, but Hughes dominates the film. He is both the catalyst for their relationship and the single greatest impediment. Every time Hughes appears on screen the story becomes preoccupied with his weirdness. Beatty never manages to smoothly integrate the two plot lines, or its occasional leaps through time.

I couldn’t help but think of the skilful way Tom Ford negotiated a far more complex blend of past and present, fiction and reality, in Nocturnal Animals. That film was significantly darker than Rules Don’t Apply, which combines elements of comedy, drama and romance – a mixture that never really gels, although there are some memorable scenes.

Hughes doesn’t appear until more than 20 minutes into the movie but his presence is everywhere. He employs Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) as one of a team of drivers hired to ferry around more than two dozen would-be starlets kept on the company payroll. Marla Mabrey (Lili Collins) is the latest recruit. She arrives fresh from Virginia, accompanied by her strict Baptist mother (Annette Bening). She doesn’t suspect how many girls Hughes has housed all over Hollywood, awaiting elusive screen tests and parts in movies.

Frank comes from a strict Methodist background, and his instant attraction to Marla is held in check by both religious scruples and a less glamorous fiancée (Taissa Farmiga), with whom he has already “gone all the way”. Besides, if any of the drivers fraternise with the girls they are instantly sacked.

None of this prevents Frank and Marla from falling in love. She even writes a winsome little tune, Rules Don’t Apply, which she sings for him.

Frank hopes to interest his employer in a real estate deal, while Marla wonders if she’s got what it takes to be a star. She looks like a cross between the young Liz Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, but compared to the other girls she’s hopelessly unworldly – a virgin and a bluestocking, happier writing songs than singing them. Both of them are wondering when they’ll ever get to meet their mysterious employer.

From the moment he appears, Beatty’s Hughes becomes the centre of attention. Both Frank and Marla form relationships with him, but never come to terms with his increasingly strange behaviour. As his aeronautucal ambitions become more grandiose, Hughes grows wildly agoraphobic. Soon he is unwilling to meet with anyone, even a group of bankers who are trying to lend him a few hundred milliion dollars. (Incidentally, one of those bankers is played by Steven Mnuchin, Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury, who is also an executive producer of the film).

Hughes is obsessed with the idea that he could be declared insane and have to surrender control of his companies. His insane solution is stay completely out of sight. He is phobic about germs, repeats the same sentences over and over, and spends hours watching footage of plane crashes. When he gets into the cockpit of a plane for a hair-raising joyride, he belts out an Al Jolson number.

Although Ehrenreich and Collins put in committed performances they are completely overshadowed by Beatty’s inspired lunacy. Their romance is a stop-start affair in which the most dramatic plot developments never feel convincing. Soon we begin to view Frank and Marla as merely a distraction from their boss’s antics. The other great distraction is playing ‘spot the celebrity’, with cameos from Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, and so on.

Inevitably, Beatty’s Hughes has been seen as a self-portrait and as a Donald Trump surrogate. There’s scope for both readings, but one shouldn’t lose sight of the real Howard Hughes, a man whose legend was born in the glare of publicity but pushed to outlandish proportions when he became invisible.

Rules Don’t Apply
Written & directed by Warren Beatty
Starring Warren Beatty, Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening, Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen, Taissa Farmiga, Alec Baldwin
USA, rated M, 127 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 May, 2017