It’s not quite “Blah Blah Bland” but the glimmer of golden era Hollywood seems a bit dimmer in Rules Don’t Apply and it’s not always intentional.
Warren Beatty’s big return as both actor and director is undeniably a little mundane and a workaday take on a very unconventional character. The life and legacy of Howard Hughes has, if only due to his history as a film producer, always been of great interest to modern filmmakers. Scorsese’s portrait of a bizarrely motivated maniac with The Aviator seemed unsurpassable at the time of release, Christopher Nolan abandoned his passion project on Hughes in its wake, and Rules Don’t Apply seems to cement this conclusion.
It may not appear this way at first but Howard Hughes is very much the subject of this film. As the story goes on, the romantic entanglement of Lily Collin’s wide-eyed starlet and Alden Ehrenreich’s career-driven driver becomes progressively waysided by Beatty’s increasingly maudlin representation of Hughes. Beatty’s vision of 50s Hollywood isn’t quite rose-tinted, a lot of the time it definitely feels like it’s trying to be frank and a little subversive, but it is a tad sentimental. No more so than most modern biopics set around that era but most modern biopics set around that era are fairly reductive. Viewed against these types of film, yes, Rules Don’t Apply is definitely better. Beatty’s performance as Hughes is endearingly weird, while never feeling close to real in any way, and the running commentary on the time’s attitude towards sex is refreshingly honest while never being overly serious.
Overall, it suffers from the same syndromes as most biopics. An unclear story arc makes the passage of time seem jagged. There’s a keen eye for detail in the production design’s historical accuracy but not much of one in the cinematography, nor does it have much of a visual aesthetic to speak of. The cast is wide, and impressive, but often wasted with many side characters coming off as distracting cameos. Actors just passing by in Rules Don’t Apply include Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Paul Sorvino, Martin Sheen, Steve Coogan and Alec Baldwin. It does contain some satisfying, albeit brief, work from those actors and supporting players, like Oliver Platt and Beatty’s spouse Annette Bening, appear like their talents are understood and appreciated. As far as the leads go though, Collins is suitably sweet and progresses into convincingly mature but Ehrenreich’s charm isn’t quite right for the beleaguered everyman.
To bring things back to Scorsese again, aging directors can still produce pacy and energetic work, see The Wolf of Wall Street for proof, but they often make more slowly paced stories without themselves realising it. There’s a certain easygoingness to Rules Don’t Apply that it never shakes and it’s hard work to emotionally invest yourself in the characters. At its core it is still an old fashioned love story but it’s drowned out by an incessant chatter about compromise and an overbearing aura of hero worship that, at best, scratches the surface of Howard Hughes.
Rules Don’t Apply will be released in UK cinemas on April 21st.