After 15 years of absence from the screen, Waren Beatty (who also wrote and directed the film) makes a return with Rules Don’t Apply, a screenplay that he had been developing since 1973 and in which he plays the eccentric Hollywood businessman Howard Hughes. This is a passion project for Beatty, which had to fight many obstacles before ending up on the big screen and despite its long journey, the film still feels incapable of telling a coherent story, as it starts meandering and begins to feel convoluted halfway through.
The film’s beginning leads the audience to believe that what they are about to see is a forbidden love story between a young actress Marla Mabrey (Lilly Collins) and her driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), but this changes 25 minutes into the movie, as soon as Howard Hughes makes an appearance in his dark room, bringing with him all his weirdness and ridiculousness which inevitably take center stage. Despite Beatty’s claims that this is “not a Howard Hughes movie”, this character appears as a god-like figure in the film that happens to have the financial power to control the other characters’ lives, dreams, and decisions.
Beatty’s representation of Hughes’ odd behavior and inexplicable quirks and actions, as well as his few sparks of genius creates a character that feels hard to categorize in any way. This influential figure, who repeats himself without realizing and who makes his employees buy him all the Banana Nut ice cream they can find only to decide that he actually wants French Vanilla, often feels like a caricature that we neither hate, nor love. Although the film tries to find a source of his neurotic behavior by having Hughes often mention his daddy issues and insecurities, his power and money are the ones that actually nourish his insanity.
Both Lilly Collins and Alden Ehrenreich are sweet, funny and quirky in their parts, which however seem to exist only to contrast Hughes strangeness. Marla, the good Baptist girl who never breaks the rule, and Frank, the driver with big dreams and aspirations, are characters who orbit around the billionaire which fascinates them and drives their careers, as well as their personal lives, and unfortunately lack any true substance that would help them stand out.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel does an exceptional job in creating the 1950s Hollywood nostalgia look and atmosphere through lighting and camera movement. In Rules Don’t Apply everything glows, the characters are radiant and stand out even when the setting is a dark hotel room or a cinema, the picture being scented with the Golden Age Hollywood perfume all throughout.
Rules Don’t Apply is a nostalgic comedy-drama that doesn’t quite manage to raise to its expectations as a deep and emotional or funny film, the construction of the narrative itself somewhat borrowing from the obsessive-compulsive personality of its central character, Howard Hughes. Overall it tries to fit too many pieces in its attempt to show an ambitious layered story, an overall messy story that does, however, manage to leave the audience intrigued about Hughes’ mind and life.
★★ and a half.