Where has Warren Beatty been? Even for Beatty, who often has long gaps between films, 15 years is a long time since his last on-screen appearance (Town and Country). But with his newest cinematic effort, Rules Don’t Apply, Beatty is back to old form, writing, producing and directing a film in which he again places himself in the central role.
Set in 1958, Rules Don’t Apply follows Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a young aspiring actor placed under contract by eccentric businessman and film producer Howard Hughes (Beatty). When she arrives in Hollywood with her mother (Annette Bening), she is escorted by limo driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), an ambitious young man who hopes to pitch a grandiose real-estate scheme to Hughes. There is an attraction between Marla and Frank, although neither can act on it, in part because they are both devoutly religious, in part because Frank is already engaged, but mainly because Hughes strictly prohibits dating and sexual contact between employees. That same rule doesn’t seem to apply to Hughes himself, as he eventually seduces Marla in his weird, eccentric manner. Hughes’s seduction of Marla puts a roadblock in her already complicated yet unconsummated relationship with Frank; they have already gone to great lengths to hide their flirtatious banters. Frank, in the meantime, rises to become both a business aide and confident to Hughes.
It’s difficult to understand what Beatty’s intentions were with the film. At the core, the film is about Marla and Frank, and it’s their story around which most of the action of the film revolves. And most of the film’s secondary characters (both fictional and historical), played by well-known, older veteran actors, including Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen and Steve Coogan in incidental cameos, serve mainly to support Marla and Frank. Yet a large chunk of the narrative is devoted to Beatty’s interpretation of Hughes, and this may be where the film falters. It’s not that Beatty’s performance is bad–it’s not–but Beatty, who’s about 25 years too old to play Hughes, who would have been around 52 during the timeline of the film, seems to be building a film around his go-to formula of casting himself at the centre of attention.
Who can knock Beatty for being seemingly narcissistic? Beatty, long rumoured to be the subject of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”, has been in front of the camera since he was 20. He produced and acted in the revolutionary Bonnie and Clyde when he was 29. And think of all the successful movies he’s directed, produced or written in which he’s been the star: Shampoo (in which he played a womanizer), Heaven Can Wait (he’s a football quarterback here), and Dick Tracy (he’s a comic book hero for this one!) But in these movies, many of which also feature a large ensemble cast, it was clear that he was playing the central character. In Rules Don’t Apply, he’s playing a supporting character who’s given the starring role. Many scenes cut from Marla and Frank to Howard, who, in his nutty paranoia, plots to seduce Marla, manipulate Frank and avoid investors from possibly committing him to a psychiatric hospital. Beatty does a fine job performing the quirky Hughes, and he seems to be having fun. It’s too bad Beatty had a difficult time sharing the limelight. Marla and Frank’s romance was as interesting as Hughes’s manipulation of the young couple. It’s too bad he didn’t focus on one story more.