I haven’t had due cause to consider Warren Beatty’s directorial output in recent years. He hasn’t directed anything so far this century, and it has been with some significant perplexity that I look back over his oeuvre and realize how distinctly idiosyncratic his films have been. In fact, I might go so far as to withdraw the euphemistic use of “idiosyncratic” and say the films he chooses to direct are outright weird. Rules Don’t Apply is certainly no exception. Like Beatty’s prior films, it vacillates between being pleasantly surprising and frustratingly self-indulgent.
I saw Dick Tracy and Bulworth as a much younger man during their initial theatrical runs, long before I understood how uncharacteristically experimental the former film was for a big-budget summer release and how very near the latter comes to being incomprehensibly insane in any context. By the time I got around to Heaven Can Wait (an ill-advised Here Comes Mr. Jordan remake) and Beatty’s presumptive masterpiece Reds, I realized I was a fan — but couldn’t for the life of me figure out exactly why. Even more difficult to grasp was the logic behind the director-producer-writer-actor’s rationale in selecting his projects. I’m somehow simultaneously delighted and dismayed to say that Rules has done absolutely nothing to clarify the matter.
Beatty’s greatest strength is as a director of actors, and his patience with the performative process pays dividends. He’s attracted an impeccable cast and allowed them to turn in some of their best work, with even the peripheral roles feeling well-developed by virtue of the actors’ skills rather than through anything found in the script. Relative newcomers Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins deliver admirably competent turns as two star-crossed tinsel town neophytes whose inevitable romantic attraction is both predicated on, and precluded by, Howard Hughes’ involvement. But I found myself more drawn to the performances of actors on the edges, marveling at the capacity of Annette Bening or Ed Harris or Matthew Broderick to create nuanced and compelling characterizations within the confines of the scant handful of frames each were allotted.
As much as I appreciate Beatty in general — and a well-realized late ’40s to early ’50s period Hollywood setting in particular — the many virtues of Rules Don’t Apply never fully succeed in overcoming the film’s disjointed and inherently strange narrative. This project, which Beatty has been trying to get made for longer than I’ve been alive, was clearly a labor of love for the filmmaker. This works to his significant disadvantage far too often, as the editing moves at a breakneck pace and the story structure is decidedly off-kilter. Even at 127 minutes, the film feels rushed as if Beatty and co-writer Bo Goldman used the roughly 40 years Rules spent in development hell to try to cram three movies’ worth of material into one feature.
Perhaps the most intriguing element of Rules Don’t Apply is Beatty’s portrayal of Hughes, incorporating the eccentric billionaire’s psychotic descent within the narrative tapestry as both primary story engine and comic relief. Even when Beatty’s Hughes functions as the ostensible villain of the piece, the actor’s undeniable charisma and evident affinity for the character render him likable in spite of his actions. It might be most accurate to describe Beatty’s use of the well-worn Hughes mythology as a framing device rather than as a character in and of itself, a structural conceit that allows for a cursory examination of everything from Hollywood under the studio system to mid-century religious mores to power dynamics in relationships both romantic and platonic. As such, the film is effective. But, like Hughes’ legendary Spruce Goose, it flies too low to accomplish anything much more meaningful than the realization of a long-held dream. Rated PG-13 for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements and drug references.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Regal Biltmore Grande, UA Beaucatcher, Epic of Hendersonville.