There’s not a lot of spectacular biopics. It’s one of the hardest genres to pull off successful because films of that ilk either align with the category of being too Oscar bait-y or try too hard to cram in an entire life story and sacrifice creativity and nuance at that expense. There are the few exceptions to the rule (Malcolm X would be my pick) and the title of the most recent Warren Beatty feature may hope for the same type of mold breaking. Rules Don’t Apply is a late in life biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes’ loss of sanity in the 1950s to 1960s. Now we’ve already had a Howard Hughes movie with Martin Scorses’ The Aviator, solid but not really a stand out of the director’s career which gives a clear telling of the early, vivacious years of the millionaire’s life. With all that context in mind, I have to assume director, writer, producer and star Beatty wanted to make his telling as polar opposite as he could and for better or for worse, he sure did. As a jumping off point, assuming the audience saw the Leo interpretation, Rules rushes through backstory and kicks off with the old man who refuses to leave his room and probably still peeing in jars. Rules Don’t Apply is as crazy as the mentally deteriorating Hughes where the filmmaking is messy, confusing and hilarious all which I could only hope is on purpose by the equally unseen Beatty.
Why I don’t think this an instance of Beatty going senile and forgetting how to direct is that the film is diverted into two major storylines, the insanity of Hughes and a tale of young love depicted as if from a classic film of that Golden Age of Hollywood. Sadly the more competent romance subplot is the less interesting part and exists to offset the amount of crazy that amasses in every scene with Hughes (played by Beatty). It’s the traditional presenting of the larger than life man through the eyes of a youthful, naive protagonist who learns that all that glitters isn’t gold when their idol turns out to be just a man. You know the plot of the smash hit Me and Orson Welles. Here the two impressionable youths are limo driver Franks Forbes (Aiden Ehrenreich) with dreams of land developing and Virgina beauty queen Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), one of Hughes’ newest contract ingenues. Their romance which flourishes as innocently as they are is delivered with swelling scores and harbors these big emotional beats all which seem lifted from a Rock Hudson vehicle. Though it’s more self-aware playing up their Christian mores which would have been second-hand knowledge in the 1950s and not the explicit humorous text here. It’s mostly underwhelming partially because the actors never project that much chemistry, Ehrenreich has a much stronger screen presence than Collins but during their scenes of will-they-won’t-they, I just wanted to get back to the TV dinner eating creeper that is Howard Hughes.
My theory for the odd, almost amateur style in which this movie is compiled is intentional because you’re seeing it as if it were directed by the befuddled Hughes. The editing is extremely frantic, scenes are practically cut off mid-sentence as they quickly catalog Marla and Frank’s Hollywood adventures. The pacing normalizes during the more drawn out scenes with characters interacting with Hughes but it’s replaced with the off-kilter comedic sense as Hughes repeats, mishears and evades everyone around him. I didn’t expect the movie to be this absurd as a long take scene of Frank and Hughes walking down a dark peer ends with them arriving at a set table with precisely placed burgers and fries that they consume like it’s a regular Wednesday night. We as an audience are being introduced to this weirdness both narratively which affects the leads but cinematically through the jarring visual techniques. Howard Hughes only directed two films but Beatty equally having a short filmography and being out of the spotlight for so long, you’d expect this incoherentness from a grumpy old man. The fact that this was a passion project that took years to make has me assume that this is a calculated meta joke, while extremely flawed, I’m completely into. He’s playing with these expectations that we probably didn’t even know we had.
This isn’t your typical biopic. No one here is gunning for an Academy Award. It’s all big performances that we don’t get to see much of anymore. Annette Benning as the overbearing Baptist mother of Marla and Matthew Broderick’s Levar as Hughes’ assistant that’s in too deep are so much fun because they’re allowed to play these parts fast and loose. They add to the 50’s era Los Angeles aesthetic paired with one of the best uses of CGI which is the grainy, technicolor exteriors used as characters drive down Sunset Boulevard. I’d give this movie 5 stars if it was purely hinged on production design which really pops. Even if the film doesn’t work 100% as its two contrasting stories where the romantic leads aren’t worth the schmaltzy moments they’re given and that it’s overstuffed with cameos that are unsatisfying (what’s Paul Servino doing here?), it’s still fascinating by being full of such bold choices. It makes me realize we’ve missed out on years of Beatty and I wish he had given us more. Remember how strange Bulworth is? I don’t expect any kind of resurgence from him but I need to get on a retrospective ASAP.