AFI Fest Review: Howard Hughes Overshadows the Central Romance of ‘Rules Don’t Apply’

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Rules Don't Apply

It’s been 18 years since Warren Beatty last directed a feature a film, 1998’s Bulworth. The legendary actor-director has returned to the director’s chair with Rules Don’t Apply, a love story set in the Hollywood of the late ‘50s where two young people are sucked into the eccentric world of Howard Hughes as the wealthy mogul begins his final descent into the throes of mental illness. Rules Don’t Apply is a movie that’s uneven in its construction but is able to coast by due to three solid performances from its cast. Being a tale of romance set against the backdrop of madness, power, and wealth, it may be hard for some to find the comedy in Rules Don’t Apply considering the recent turn of events (I, for one, found it rather tough).

Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) has just moved to Hollywood from Fresno and within weeks has a job working as a driver for Howard Hughes’ studio. Forbes is to drive the starlets under contract to and from dinners and acting classes but always obeying the rules that Hughes has laid down – no driver is to have any romantic interest in any actress under contract. That rule is placed to the test when Frank is to pick up Marla Mabery (Lily Collins) and her mother Lucy (Annette Bening) as they arrive in town from Virginia. Marla is virginal with her strict Baptist upbringing guiding her through the seedy world of Hollywood. After weeks and weeks of waiting, Marla is finally able to meet with the reclusive mogul (played by Beatty) hoping to get a screen test to determine if she is destined to be a movie star. Meanwhile, Frank Forbes wants to meet with Hughes to discuss investing in some properties, and when the two meet Hughes takes a liking to him and quickly pulls him closer into his ever diminishing inner circle. Being in the world of Howard Hughes pulls Frank and Marla further and further apart until that once strong connection is almost entirely severed.

The strengths of Rules Don’t Apply lie in the lead performances of Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins, the two sharing a strong onscreen chemistry. But the script by Beatty and Bo Goldman underserve the actors as the film progresses, placing them in a love triangle that never really coheres and separating the characters for much of its final act. The third act troubles that plague Rules Don’t Apply leaves its emotional crescendo as entirely underwhelming, only the actors onscreen have their eyes well up. Among the other strengths is the classical style of direction that Beatty employs, using soft lighting on the eyes for the various actresses in the film. This lighting style is most obvious, though, when Beatty and his wife Bening are on the screen.

Warren Beatty gives a strong performance as the eccentric Hughes. He’s a wildcard that’s completely unpredictable and the veteran actor seems to relish each and every scene as the legendary aviator. Most of the scenes involving Hughes are incredibly underlit, indicating an immensely rich and powerful man who only feels comfortable in the shadows. At the same time, it’s an odd choice that the mental illness that plagues Hughes is often played for laughs with his erratic behavior frustrating Frank Forbes and his coworker Lavar (Matthew Broderick) as, for example, he keeps changing his mind about the kind of ice cream he wants.

There’s also a stellar supporting cast in Rule Don’t Apply that are erratically deployed in the film, adding that sense of unevenness that runs throughout the second half of the film. Haley Bennett, Ed Harris, Taissa Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Oliver Platt, Candice Bergen, and Martin Sheen each have minor roles that may only include a brief scene or two. (Funnily enough, Baldwin represents the connection between Rules Don’t Apply and Martin Scorsese’s far superior Hughes film The Aviator.) It’s unfortunate that so many talented performers aren’t really given their moment to provide more meaningful contributions to the film as Beatty and Goldman’s script becomes more and more focused on Hughes instead of the film’s central romance.

Beatty’s return to the screen is neither a triumph nor a failure, just a middle of the road film that isn’t a traditional biopic but lacks that extra push to make it something special and memorable. Despite the strong lead performances the script always seems determined to undermine the stronger aspects of the film. The movie features a bit too much on the nose dialogue, with the title being used in conversation a number of time as well as a song written about those conversations. Rules Don’t Apply doesn’t glean any new information or depth about the bizarre character that shapes the lives of those around him, as it’s more of the same eccentricities that we’ve all known about Hughes. And the larger than life figure of Howard Hughes overshadows everything eventually, as the brilliant man’s descent into madness takes priority over the romance that’s the heart and soul of Rules Don’t Apply.

Rules Don't Apply
  • Overall Score


Warren Beatty’s first film in 18 years, Rules Don’t Apply features a trio of strong performances but the film’s central romance is overshadowed by the script’s infatuation with Howard Hughes’ descent into madness.

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