Like a doughnut, ‘Rules Don’t Apply’ has a hole in the middle
“Rules Don’t Apply” feels unbalanced in terms of story, and it has a big sag in the middle. But the good things in it are so good, they make it a fairly worthwhile experience.
Written and directed by Warren Beatty, the movie benefits from Beatty’s memory of the era depicted, the late 1950s and early ’60s, as well as his fidelity to it. That’s a strong virtue, and it pervades much of “Rules Don’t Apply,” including the actors chosen and every detail of the film’s look.
The clothing, the hairstyles, the color stock, the eyebrows on the lead actress Lily Collins, the baggy sports jacket and tie on Alden Ehrenreich all scream circa 1960. Collins does not look like a modern movie star, but she looks a lot like Jean Simmons. Ehrenreich is not the usual 2016 headliner, but he sure resembles Mario Lanza.
And Beatty directs them away from any hint of modern irony, so that they are earnest and direct and seem entirely of the period.
“Rules Don’t Apply” tells the story of Marla, a religious young woman from Virginia, who is brought out to Hollywood in 1959 to become part of Hughes’ stock company. The idea is that she has been hired to appear in a film and also to write songs, but weeks go by without a meeting with Hughes.
Soon she finds out that practically no one she works with has met Hughes, including Frank, her driver. Indeed, it’s a mystery why Hughes even has a company, as he doesn’t seem to be making any movies.
Beatty builds up Hughes’ eventual entrance in “Rules Don’t Apply” using classic Hollywood techniques. We hear his voice long before we see him. We see people react to him with anxiety and perplexity.
Beatty gives himself a lot to live up to, but when he finally shows up, his performance as Hughes delivers. He gives us a Hughes who is charmingly and delightfully out of his mind, with quicksilver shifts in thought and mood and disconcerting flashes of pristine lucidity. Even when the movie starts to drag, he is always interesting to watch.
For much of the first third of “Rules Don’t Apply,” the audience’s focus is very much on Marla, and to a lesser extent Frank, who soon develops feelings for her. Hughes is a condition of their lives, but he is not at the center of the movie, and this feels right. Beatty, as screenwriter, sets up what seems to be a story of young love, set against a background that’s bizarre and yet meticulously detailed.
But about a third of the way into “Rules Don’t Apply” changes gears, and the attention shifts from Marla to Hughes. The film becomes the story of a nutty billionaire who drives his subordinates to distraction. It’s precisely there that the air starts going out of the balloon.
The problem isn’t Beatty’s performance as Hughes — he’s great — but that the story loses its hold. After all, we may wonder what’s going to become of Marla, but there’s no wondering what is going to happen to Hughes.
We get it. He’s nuts. The details may change from one moment to the next, but the character’s general direction is no mystery: He can’t change. Nothing can happen. He’s just going to stay crazy.
Fortunately, Beatty is so good at playing mental illness — he’s even better here than he was in “Bugsy” — that he saves the movie. But no amount of flash and dazzle can quite quell the disappointment that comes of a story that begins promisingly and then derails.
Beatty is probably who people will be talking about after seeing “Rules Don’t Apply,” but I suspect they’ll be thinking about Collins, who is memorable as a young woman bruised by the Hollywood machine.
Collins has the movie’s best moments, which are quiet moments: A skillfully accomplished drunk scene, not to mention two renditions of the title song, which is better the second time you hear it.
Running time: 127 minutes
MPAA rating: (profanity, sexual situations)