By Mark Saldana
Rating: 1.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
Warren Beatty’s attempted romantic comedy is a film that is neither romantic, nor all that funny. The film does have a few genuinely funny moments, but not enough to make it entertaining, or really worth anyone’s while. As a director, Beatty does have the right sensibilities for a classic Hollywood homage, but the focus and purpose of this movie comes across rather muddled. It doesn’t particularly help that Beatty should have cast someone other than himself in the iconic role of Howard Hughes, as he essentially portrays the role as himself. Perhaps some rules should have been applied when making this film, because the lack of some solid direction makes this movie an aimless mess.
The film stars Lily Collins as Marla Mabrey, an aspiring actress who signs a contract as a performer for billionaire movie mogul and aviation businessman Howard Hughes (Beatty). During her first days in Hollywood, the virginal devout Baptist connects with Hughes’ driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), and the two share a mutual attraction. Their romantic involvement gets hindered by the strict rules that apply to the talent under contract with Hughes and the impulsive and compulsive behavior of Hughes due to his mental illness.
As writer and director of Rules Don’t Apply, Beatty can’t seem to make up his mind whether this film is a delightful and funny romantic comedy or a disconcerting portrait of Hughes as a brilliant, but mentally disturbed genius. The movie is so erratic and chaotic that it comes across as a movie disaster that Hughes, himself, helmed. To be fair, Beatty and his crew do a fine job with their world-building, recreating the lovely classic Hollywood scene, but that beauty is only surface deep, and what should have been a romantic and entertaining romp plays out like a cynical and bitter commentary on faux romanticism.
The film does have some comedy that works, but Beatty falters by making Hughes’ behavior the source of most of the comedy. This just doesn’t work because Hughes suffered from a mental illness that obviously led to his demise as a genius of business, aviation, and cinema. This makes Beatty come across as a cruel bully poking fun at another man’s illness. I am honestly not sure that was his real intention, but I can only attest to how his approach to the humor plays out, and the overall impact is mostly, awkwardly unfunny.
The romance also feels forced and not completely natural. There is an absence of chemistry in the development of the characters and between the actors portraying them. Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich offer mostly solid turns, but don’t genuinely feel like a couple in love with one another. Warren Beatty does capture some of the tics, mannerisms, fears, and erratic behavior of soon-to-be recluse Howard Hughes, but his performance doesn’t feel at all like Hughes himself. It plays out like Warren Beatty, but Warren Beatty with a mental illness. Beatty should have drawn some inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s Hughes biopic The Aviator and studied Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance which perfectly captures the essence of Howard Hughes. He is totally miscast and should’ve cast someone more suitable for the role.
Perhaps Beatty is also unsuitable for this type of story and movie. I am not at all certain what his purpose was in making this movie. It is neither a romantic comedy, nor a nostalgic celebration of classic Hollywood. It feels more like a humiliating knock against Hughes’ mental struggles and a cynical indictment of the puritanical facade of classic Hollywood. It isn’t a particularly compelling or entertaining one at that.