Rules Don’t Apply: An Uneven Throwback With A Romance That Shines

This piece was originally published by Film Inquiry on April 28, 2017.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood — not to mention the outsize characters that populate it. Warren Beatty’s long-awaited return to the director’s chair, Rules Don’t Apply, tells the story of one such character: reclusive film impresario, pilot and inventor Howard Hughes.

Yet rather than tell Hughes’ legendary life story through a straightforward biopic, Beatty chooses to explore Hughes’ character through his interactions with two (fictional) young employees, a driver and a contract actress. While the premise is indeed an intriguing way to tell someone’s story, it ends up being Rules Don’t Apply’s downfall — but not for the reasons you might expect.

When Frank Met Marla (And Howard)

Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) was raised by his grandmother in Fresno, and is engaged to a girl he’s known since he was in seventh grade. A devout Methodist, he says grace before every meal and attends church every Sunday. Moving to Los Angeles to work for Howard Hughes (Beatty) doesn’t seem like it would be a natural fit for Frank, but he’s hoping to convince Hughes to invest in an affordable housing project that has been percolating in the back of Frank’s head. Frank starts working for Hughes as one of a fleet of drivers employed to chauffeur around Hollywood the stable of starlets that Hughes has under contract. (Hughes won’t allow them to have their own cars because he wants to control their movements, especially movements that may involve their sex lives.)

The majority of the aspiring actresses that Hughes has under contract are an interchangeable mix of busty blondes with big singing voices. Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) is different. A strict Baptist and songwriter who only “kind of” sings, she turned down a scholarship after winning a beauty contest in her Virginia hometown and catching the eye of Hughes.

Slight, dark and full of sharp angles, including her prominent eyebrows, Marla is not your stereotypical Hollywood starlet, but it’s clear from the moment that Frank first lays eyes on her that she is indeed a star. As he drives her around to dance and drama classes mandated by Hughes, the two of them share their hopes for the future with each other — all of which rest on a man who signs their checks but who neither of them have met yet.

When Hughes finally presents himself to Frank and Marla, albeit under very different circumstances, he manages to turn their already tumultuous young lives entirely upside down. As Frank starts to break into Hughes’ inner circle and Marla gets herself a sought-after screen test, the two of them become almost as infatuated with Hughes — an increasingly erratic man who still holds all of the cards when it comes to their dreams — as they clearly are with each other.

Yet their devout religious upbringings and Hughes’ rule forbidding relationships between his actresses and his employees prevent them from telling each other how they truly feel about each other. It’s a bizarre love triangle between two young people who have everything ahead of them and one old man who cannot accept how much of his life is now behind him. The more time Frank and Marla spend with Hughes, the more these two formerly enthusiastic young people start to grow embittered, and their stars begin to fade before they’ve even truly risen.

Two Movies in One Doesn’t Mean Double the Fun

As wonderful as it is to see an icon like Beatty onscreen again for the first time in 15 years, Rules Don’t Apply is strongest when focusing less on Hughes and more on the friendship-turned-romance between Frank and Marla. Ehrenreich, so endearing as an awkward cowboy attempting to be an actor in the Coen brothers’ own take on the Golden Age of Hollywood, Hail, Caesar!, brings that same aw-shucks charm to the role of Frank, while Collins gives a sparkling, spark-plug of a performance as Marla, full of fast chatter and nervous quips reminiscent of Woody Allen’s most beloved female leads. The two of them are downright adorable; they have instant chemistry which only grows in potency as they start to spend more time together outside of Frank’s car. One can’t help but fall for them as they fall for each other.

In fact, I was invested in their relationship to the point of nearly yelling at the screen every time they looked on the verge of finally taking the plunge, and wanting to throw something every time they allowed another silly obstacle to get in their way. I’m not a terribly sentimental moviegoer — I’m more likely to feel my heart race during a car chase in a James Bond film than in a romantic drama — but watching the two of them together was downright intoxicating.

And yet, approximately halfway through the film, Beatty throws the romance on the backburner in favor of highlighting Hughes’ eccentricities. The result is that Rules Don’t Apply feels like two separate films just barely held together by Beatty as both director and actor: the first half a swoon-worthy romance set against the backdrop of 1950’s Hollywood, the second a mini-biopic of Hughes. In the second half of the film, long chunks of time pass without us seeing Frank and Marla together onscreen; instead, we see both of them through the lens of their very different relationships with Hughes. While this in theory is a clever conceit for a movie, it ends up being frustrating when the relationship that we’ve spent half the movie becoming invested in gets thrown out the window in favor of these other, less interesting ones.

It doesn’t help that Hughes is outright less likable than Frank and Marla, despite Beatty’s evergreen charisma. As good as Beatty is in the role, we’ve seen the Howard Hughes story before, most notably in Martin Scorsese’s Leonardo DiCaprio-starring epic, The Aviator. While Frank and Marla’s romance feels fresh despite all of the vintage trimmings and old-fashioned sexual mores, the scenes of Hughes demanding trucks full of banana-nut ice cream, singing bizarre songs while haphazardly flying a plane and refusing to see important investors all feel too familiar. When all Hughes seems to do is get in the way of Frank and Marla getting together, you can’t help but be annoyed by him and want him to go away. And no one should end up feeling that way about Warren Beatty.

The cast of Rules Don’t Apply is rounded out by a roster of other familiar faces, including Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen, Oliver Platt, Alec Baldwin, and Annette Bening (in a scene-stealing role as Marla’s steely mother). Yet for the most part, they all blend together in the background, a procession of stars all outshone by the two bright young things at the center of the film.

These Rules are the Relic of Another Age

If Rules Don’t Apply had focused on one of its two main storylines (preferably the romance), it could have been a solid movie. Instead, it feels uneven, lurching alternately between utterly charming and honestly boring before it crashes to an end. Considering that Beatty had been planning a biopic of Hughes for forty years, one wonders why the final result ends up feeling surprisingly slapdash. It does explain, however, why the film also feels strikingly old-fashioned.

Caught up in nostalgia for the era it documents — an era when, it must be noted, Beatty was around the same age as his Ehrenreich and Collins, and his star in ascendance — Rules Don’t Apply is the kind of movie that Hollywood rarely makes anymore, and for good reason. Modern audiences have outgrown fluffy stories in praise of the old days, with casts populated entirely by pretty white people. They’re looking for stories that reflect their lives, with characters that reflect their experiences. This is why Frank and Marla’s romance resonates more than any other part of Rules Don’t Apply: even if we can’t relate to their religious devotion, or their Hollywood aspirations, or their misadventures with Hughes, we can relate to the feeling of falling in love.

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