Screenplay by Warren Beatty, story by Warren Beatty and Bo Goldman
Directed by Warren Beatty
Starring Warren Beatty, Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen and more
Grade: One and a half stars
Hollywood needs to have some kind of oversight program for passion projects.
If one existed, Warren Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply” would have either been a better movie or mercifully killed before it could get to us. Nominally a Howard Hughes biopic, the movie eschews anything even remotely resembling hard fact for a self-indulgent romp through Hughes’ power and mental issues. Even worse, Beatty’s Hughes is without fail the least interesting thing on the screen, serving the movie best when he’s only a plot device for Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins. When he hijacks the plot in the second half, the entire movie suffers.
The movie starts by focusing on Ehrenreich and Collins, with the former as one of Hughes’ fleet of drivers and the latter as one of his team of starlets he kept promising movie roles to. The two are both religious, though that mostly seems to be a plot device that Beatty abandons when it’s no longer useful to him, and quickly bond amid the eccentric circumstances that come from working with Hughes.
Basically, it’s a slightly clichéd but surprisingly sweet period romance, mostly due to winning performances by both Ehrenreich and Collins. Beatty, who of course is playing Howard Hughes, is fine as a supporting character who seems to be there mostly to say eccentric things. He’s an accent to the real focus of the movie, the young couple.
Then, unfortunately, the movie takes a left turn into strangeness that it never quite recovers from. The turning point is the most unpleasant, wince-inducing sex scene that has possibly ever existed in a PG-13 movie. Though you don’t even see much skin, I’ve made people cringe simply by informing people that it’s between Warren Beatty’s character, who is 79 years old, and a young woman in her mid-20s. Yes, you read that correctly – Beatty has graced us all with mental image of him having sex with someone almost young enough to be his great-granddaughter. Oh, and she’s drunk, for the first time in her life, on a full bottle of champagne. Beatty’s character, on the other hand, is completely sober.
Once this is over, there’s still a full hour of movie to get through. Ehrenreich and Collins try to maintain what they had going before, but they’re fighting a losing battle as Beatty takes over both the story and the screen. If there had been some real, nitty-gritty history behind it, it would have been forgivable – a close analysis of Hughes’ downward slide might have been both fascinating and heartbreaking, but it’s clear that the movie takes history as nothing more than a mere suggestion. While that’s a common crime among biopic movies, the meandering nonsense it’s replaced with is no improvement.
Random, big-named actors and actresses wander through for what mostly amounts to between a minute and about 10 minutes of screen time apiece, as if Beatty called in every favor he was ever owed from a lifetime of movies. Though none of them are given a chance to make much of an impression, some entertainment may be gathered by playing a rousing game of “Spot the Celebrity.” Bonus points if you can do it with the pics of old-time actresses in all the photos of young Hughes where Beatty has photoshopped in his own face.
In a better world, someone will cast Ehrenreich and Collins in the cute 1950s Hollywood romance this could have been. As it is, all “Rules Don’t Apply” will do is make you wish someone had taken the movie out of Beatty’s hands.