It’s been 18 years since Warren Beatty made a movie. The wait was worth it.
In Rules Don’t Apply, the legendary actor-producer-director has given us his first feature since 1998’s Bulworth, and like all his previous films, this one is tough to categorize. Part Howard Hughes biopic, part romance, part drama and several parts farce, this odd yet emotionally moving concoction is one of the most memorable and funniest films of the year – and a not-so-subtle commentary on sexual mores and religious hypocrisy.
It’s the late 1950s and young beauty queen Marla Mabrey (the uniquely cute Lily Collins) is new to Hollywood. Hailing from Innocence, U.S.A., she’s both a Virginian and a virgin. Chaperoned by her mother (Annette Bening), she has come to California with hopes of starring in the next Hughes picture. What she doesn’t know is dozens of other potential starlets are under contract to the reclusive billionaire and none has a real shot at fame because Hughes is too unbalanced to attempt another production. So she whiles away her time, dreaming of ways to impressive Hughes and falling for the billionaire’s chauffeur, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, the dude who stole the show earlier this year in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!).
As Marla becomes increasingly distraught at her predicament, Frank comforts her. She’s unlike all other Tinseltown talent, he says, claiming it doesn’t matter that she’s not tall, blonde or buxom and isn’t a great singer, actor or dancer. “Rules don’t apply to you,” he says. Though his words are pat, they ring true for Marla, who even turns them into a song, which will surely be nominated for an Oscar.
Rules don’t apply to this film, either. “If what you are is crazy,” Marla tells Hughes, “then give me more crazy.” And that’s just what Beatty does, turning what could have been a conventional love-triangle period piece into a 10-ring circus of absurdity befitting its subject. Elements that shouldn’t work somehow do. For instance, the movie is too long, Beatty is 20 years too old for his part, and the focus shifts midway through the film from Marla and Frank over to Hughes. So, though the two young characters are fictional and events in Hughes’ life are either condensed (from about 20 years down to five) or fabricated, Rules Don’t Apply is essentially a biopic, albeit the strangest one since I’m Not There.
It apparently wasn’t just me that was impressed with the project, as Beatty got a smorgasbord of stars to sign on for tiny parts. Matthew Broderick gets some substantial screen time as Hughes’ assistant, but Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin (the latter two playing real people) have little to do, and Ed Harris and Paul Sorvino have blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles. But thanks to a riveting and slightly melancholy performance by Beatty, a clever framing device, tour-de-force editing and some stunning old Technicolor footage of Los Angeles and other locales, the jigsaw puzzle pieces fall into place.
Let’s hope this isn’t the last project for the 79-year-old Beatty. Perhaps he’ll continue into his 80s, like Clint Eastwood. But if this is Beatty’s finale, as some suggest, he’s going out on a high note – higher than the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. Still, he’ll be best remembered for helming Heaven Can Wait, Reds and Dick Tracy, producing Bonnie and Clyde and countless other films, and starring in dozens more, beginning in 1961 with Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass.
OK, so maybe some rules do apply to Beatty after all. But that’s only because he helped write them.