It’s been fifteen years since Warren Beatty acted in a film and eighteen years since he directed one. It’s extremely cool that I get to include him for both in my March to 100. Rules Don’t Apply isn’t the first film to feature a major Hollywood actor portraying eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio prominently tackled the role in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator). But it is the first one to take the entrepreneur’s bizarre, reclusive behavior and use it as a springboard to construct a fictional tale, by Beatty and Bo Goldman.
The story isn’t truly about Hughes; it’s more about the effect that Hughes has on all of those around him. The true focus is mostly on young Hollywood hopefuls Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich). Mabrey wants to be a star whereas Forbes is content with behind-the-scenes success. Both of them see Hughes as their best shot at glory and their paths cross when Forbes is assigned by Hughes’s team to be Mabrey’s driver.
Collins and Ehrenreich both excel in their roles. Ehrenreich is on the rise and will likely become a household name when his Han Solo prequel drops in 2018. For Collins, this film could be her coming out party. As long as the right people see it, it’s potentially a star-making performance and no light shines on the film without first being refracted through her. Together, the two are an endearing duo that take otherwise mundane dialogue and inject it with life and energy. The film is undeniably quirky and wouldn’t work without an ensemble cast who truly gets it. Beatty has found that cast and the Collins/Ehrenreich pair confidently lead the way.
At least, for the first two-thirds of the film, they do. Then, Rules Don’t Apply bizarrely changes gears and shifts the entire focus to Beatty’s Hughes. That causes a huge problem, and it has nothing to do with Beatty’s performance or the version of Hughes that he commits to the page. The problem is that, up to this point, Hughes has been a supporting character. He doesn’t even appear for the first thirty minutes, or so. During this time, we come to know and Marla and Frank and we also become addicted to watching Collins and Ehrenreich perform. And then, they’re suddenly ripped away and shoved to the background in favor of a fictionalized version of an unlikable and unrelatable historical figure. We only care about Hughes in the sense that we care about the control and effect that he has on Marla and Frank. But, now, here we are, with lots of Hughes and little-to-none of Frank and Marla.
At this point, the film begins jumping quickly from place to place, as if it knows (and it surely does) that it needs to hurry up and get back to our true leads. Despite that, the process takes entirely too long. The film loses its momentum and its charm until finally making its way back to them when it’s time to wrap it all up. If Rules Don’t Apply was based on a true story, I could understand. But it’s not. Abandoning the charismatic young stars for the entire final act in order to serve a component of the story with little consequence to them or the audience is a huge misstep and severely damages the film as a whole.
For the first two acts, I was in love with Rules Don’t Apply. Then, I surprisingly found myself wishing it would hurry up and end. If Beatty had stayed focused on the main narrative and remained committed to the character arcs of Marla and Frank, this film would have likely forced its way into my Top Ten. As it stands, it’s 67% great film, 33% ego play. If nothing else, I sincerely hope that Rules Don’t Apply contributes to two blossoming careers. I feel confident that Ehrenreich will be fine. Collins gives the best performance of the film and deserves notice from the biggest and best producers and directors in the business. The film is worth watching just for her and if it launches her into other, more visible projects and puts her squarely in the limelight, then it was all worth it.
I wish Beatty had returned with a film that I could get behind with more enthusiasm. You’ll love Marla and Frank but try not to get too attached because they’re going to abruptly vanish on you just when it gets most interesting. What follows isn’t “bad”. It just ignores the emotional investment that the film has already demanded of the viewer, resulting in a painful, and brutality unnecessary, form of separation anxiety that sadly drags an otherwise entertaining film down into the depths of choredom.
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