Warren Beatty’s ‘Rules Don’t Apply’ shifts from romance to unexpected, unclear plotlines

Francois Duhamel/Courtesy
"Rules Don't Apply" | 20th Century Fox
Grade: C+

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On its surface, “Rules Don’t Apply” looks like just another prestige-dabbling romance, from its clichéd poster featuring a man and a woman amid some ambient lighting and palm trees to its description of young, forbidden romance in an urban setting. That’s excluding the towering figure of Warren Beatty in the background, which is fitting since Beatty wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film. The promise of his influence alone is enough to make “Rules Don’t Apply” an intriguing watch, especially as Oscars season picks up.

In Beatty’s first directorial outing since 1998 and his first acting effort since 2001, devout Baptist beauty queen Marla (Lily Collins) moves to Hollywood in 1958 to pursue an acting career under contract with Howard Hughes, the famously eccentric aviation and film tycoon who is portrayed here by Beatty himself as a loopy, enigmatic recluse in his later years. Her driver, Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), is another Hughes signee with aspirations of his own, and soon a charming attraction develops between them. Frank and Marla’s values and dreams are quickly challenged though, given Hughes’ strict rules prohibiting romantic and sexual interaction between employees and the pair’s own religious inclinations. At least, that’s what the film seems to promise upon first glance.

For the first 30 minutes or so of the film’s runtime, the audience follows a relatively run-of-the-mill romance as the two young dreamers meet each other, hit it off and slightly struggle with the clash between their budding attraction and restrictive situation. Soon though, Hughes appears and the plot is thrown into a blender on “liquefy.” Hughes begins to influence the lives of Frank and Marla with his screwball antics and unstable energy. Surprisingly, from here, the film gradually morphs into a sobering look at addiction, aging and celebrity, with Hughes’s farcical energy keeping the film from feeling too heavy. With this tonal shift, certain plotlines feel underdeveloped.

The romance angle basically disappears completely for the last hour of the movie, with Frank and Marla’s scenes together reduced to a couple clipped remarks and smoldering glances. Other supporting characters feel like one-note caricatures — from the strict Christian mother to the constantly sighing, overworked assistant. It feels like Beatty tossed up more balls than he knew he could juggle, and as the plotline rapidly bounces around the world near the end of the film, it’s hard not to feel like a lot of those balls are dropped and forgotten.

Still, there’s a lot of good in the movie. The whole cast turns in solid, believable performances. Beatty, the actor, is a clear standout as he energetically portrays Hughes’s absurdist quirks, inflated ego and underlying vulnerability. The other leads fare well too, as Ehrenreich plays Frank with understated nobility and Collins brings grace and charisma to Marla.

The dialogue is witty and snappy, and the screenplay does offer a lot of genuinely funny one-liners and farcical events to keep the audience laughing.

The film itself is also an absolute joy to look at. The setting of Hollywood is incredibly detailed, evoking nostalgia for 1950s Los Angeles with its vibrant streets, bustling film sets and ornate mansions. There are a number of knockout scenes, with a flying sequence in which Hughes pilots Frank through Europe standing out for its breathtaking camerawork.

“Rules Don’t Apply” can best be summed up as a movie that leaves the audience thinking, “What the hell just happened?” These kinds of movies can have little to no narrative coherence (“Mulholland Drive”), lay down a huge amount of thematic heft (“Arrival”) or have no idea what they’re doing (most video game adaptations). Opinions of them can vary greatly from the transcendent (the first two) to the forgettable. And while the movie offers a lot of fun and breezes by at a quick pace, it ultimately feels like with all its unexplained quirks and its underdeveloped story, “Rules Don’t Apply” falls into the latter category.

The film leaves too many threads dangling and not enough reasons for the audience to try and tie those all together. For a film titled “Rules Don’t Apply,” the film would have been better if its title had applied some more.

Contact Kevin Lu at [email protected].