Warren Beatty is one of the most enigmatic and unique figures in Hollywood history. His offscreen reputation as a legendary lothario, being notoriously selective with roles he accepts, and his outspoken liberal political views quitting acting temporarily to work for George McGovern’s 1972 Presidential campaign, almost overshadow his contributions to cinema as an actor, writer, director and producer. For such a Hollywood icon, his career has been checkered with as many flops as it has important films. When Beatty is on, we are blessed with some of the finest films of the latter part of the twentieth century such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Reds (1981), and Bulworth (1998). When he is off, we get Ishtar (1987), a flop so bad most actors would not have been able to rebound from it. But Warren Beatty is not most actors.
Beatty’s newest film Rules Don’t Apply, a title that sounds as generic as any Kate Hudson romcom, and one that is literally asking to be torn to shreds by critics, is allegedly a passion project about Howard Hughes that Beatty has wanted to make for over forty years. Well he sure took his time, this is the first occasion we have seen Beatty onscreen in fifteen years since the 2001 bomb Town and Country, a movie so bad it makes Ishtar look good. Plus this is the first film Beatty has directed in eighteen years since his outstanding 1998 political comedy-satire Bulworth. These are longer breaks than the meticulous Stanley Kubrick ever took during his career.
Was the long wait for Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes film worth it? Yes and No. It opens up with a quote from Hughes himself reflecting how this film is loosely based on facts and that liberties were taken with the events and people in the movie. A not so clever or subtle way for Beatty to cover himself. It then cuts to 1964 Hollywood where reporters wait for a phone call from Howard Hughes so he does not lose his company.
Rules Don’t Apply is basically a conventional romantic dramedy with a love triangle between Beatty’s Howard Hughes, a young starlet he has under contract (Lily Collins) and a driver he employs (Alden Ehrenreich). It tries to have a classic movie feel which only works some of the time. Some of the actors he cast do not fit in and convince me that it is the 1960’s. Collins and Ehrenreich are just fine as the leads but some of the other young performers feel like they stepped off the set of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. A lot of veteran actors took supporting roles and fare much better. Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen and Oliver Platt all excel in their small roles. Other big name actors like Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin and Paul Sorvino will have you scratching your head as to why they took such tiny roles. The answer is probably for the chance to work with Warren Beatty since he is 79 years old and this may be the last film he is ever involved in. It is not a good sign when the actor/writer/director’s career is more interesting than the film he is in.
Rules Don’t Apply is a decent movie that tries to be several different things at the same time. Unfortunately it is not very good at being any of them. Nothing it touches on really sticks. It attempts to be a social commentary on women’s roles in Hollywood and society, but bails on that when it shows Lily Collins’ character as helpless. It has scenes where it tries to comment on sexuality and religion, but discards those themes never going back to them as the story progresses. Rules Don’t Apply has funny moments but is not funny enough to laugh out loud and it is not serious or emotionally engaging enough to declare it a drama. Some scenes work, others do not. It is kind of mixed bag that is does not pass as a good film. The screenplay probably went through many rewrites over the years and it’s biggest flaw was the way it used the title so much during characters regular conversations. It made the dialogue in those scenes feel unnatural, forced and corny.
During the time of Warren Beatty’s hiatus we were treated to Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, a phenomenal biopic of Howard Hughes featuring one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performances as the eccentric billionaire. Beatty plays Hughes as affable and humorous as he succumbs to mental illness dealing with issues of obsession, paranoia and a general quirkiness during his twilight years. This gave Rules Don’t Apply a lighthearted feel. Also, Scorsese’s The Aviator hinted that Howard Hughes had some mommy issues, Rules Don’t Apply blatantly made Hughes out to have serious daddy issues. It is hard not compare the two films even though they are so different and released twelve years apart.
Despite it’s shortcomings, Rules Don’t Apply is easy enough to get caught up in the story as it unravels. It does tend to go on for too long at times near the end. It was nice to see Beatty on screen again after such a long absence and Collins and Ehrenreich are talented and should have a long future in Hollywood if they select the right scripts. This is probably the most autobiographical film of Beatty’s career. He is a long time Hollywood big shot, much like the subject he portrays. Both of these men had long histories with famous actresses and both of these men share some idiosyncratic tendencies. I just wish his long awaited Howard Hughes movie was better. For as ahead of the time as Beatty was with Bonnie and Clyde, and as much as Reds and Bulworth reflected the times they were made, Rules Don’t Apply feels very much behind the times like it should have been made a decade and a half ago.
Instead of going out to see Rules Don’t Apply check out Bulworth. A blisteringly funny and intelligent political comedy that may be Beatty’s last great film as an actor and director.
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