Fuzzy Plot Lacks Focus In ‘Rules Don’t Apply’


New movie Rules Don’t Apply is a fascinating vision of the really old, corrupt Hollywood that, unfortunately, mostly rolls over and dies. This has been a project in writer/director/actor Warren Beatty’s mind for 15 years. It would have done better to have simply remained there instead of becoming a vanity project. Parts are great, but much of the time it simply is just “there,” waiting for something interesting to happen.

Howard Hughes (Beatty), a billionaire who also makes films, hires dozens of “contract actresses” who get dolled up, trained and then allowed to audition for movies. And, of course, be “companions” for Hughes. In 1964, a biography appears that calls him insane and discusses his hijinks, focusing on a particular incident.

The film then moves to 1958, when Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a small-town girl, becomes one of his protégés and is brought to Hollywood. To make certain that she does not do anything wild and crazy, she is assigned a driver, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), whose main job (aside from driving) is to stop her from dating anyone else. But he falls for her and breaks the key rule: that he must not date one of the actresses. Thus the movie’s title, which is discussed far too often.

The young actors are the real focus of the movie as they try to have a romantic life, which, of course, must be kept a secret. Add to that both come from small towns and are very religious. But they are tossed into the shark tank of Hollywood despite their innocence. Both have their dreams; she wants to be a star and has trouble understanding why she has not gotten a long-promised screen test. He wants to promote a building project for a piece of property he has an interest in.

She succumbs to Hollywood’s sins and he does not. To promote her career, she goes along to get ahead. Forbes gives it his best but goes nowhere.

Hughes is presented almost as a benevolent if nutty presence. When he is on screen, he dominates the action, he holds our attention. We wonder what he will do next. He is fascinating. Howard Hughes has always been interesting; the genius/billionaire/reclusive nut is clearly an icon.

The movie The Aviator, a far better picture, spent two hours on the man. Here we get just flashes. But Beatty really makes the most of his time on screen. He is fascinating as we try to figure out if he is crazy like a fox or simply crazy.

The real problem is that the two young characters are just not very interesting, and the actors, although usually good, have nothing much to work with.

Forbes is essentially a nice young man on the make, a dreamer who, without luck, will wind up spending his days driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to get banana nut ice cream for his boss. And Marla essentially accepts what is basically the role of a courtesan.

Annette Bening has a good turn as Marla’s mother, Lucy, a woman who understands the deal a lot faster than her daughter. Matthew Broderick provides humor as a slimy hanger-on for Hughes, the “senior driver” who enforces the rules. There are many well-known actors taking small roles, and they generally do a great job.

The problem is that it is really hard to feel anything for the leads. She is good-looking; he has charm. But the roles go nowhere. The film is really about the supporting character, who essentially does relatively little. He is a presence in the main story but does not go anywhere with it. Beatty creates a nuanced character, one with enormous charm and just as large inconsistencies. But he is like a black hole; everything comes to him and nothing goes out. He provides no assistance to the leads; indeed, does nothing at all for the guy and demands an inappropriate relationship from the woman.

This is a film you can easily miss. Wait until it’s shown for free and you’ll get a good acting lesson from Beatty. But except for a few really good Hughes scenes, there’s not much there to enjoy.