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Warren Beatty Steals the Scenes in ‘Rules Don’t Apply’

Not much else happens in Beatty’s Howard Hughes tale

Nov. 29, 2016
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Not unlike Howard Hughes’ infamously unwieldy aircraft, the Spruce Goose, Rules Don’t Apply has trouble taking flight and doesn’t stay aloft for long. Written and directed by Warren Beatty, Rules is a tale set in the 1950s and ’60s as Hughes’ empire slipped into decline. By then, the billionaire aviation tycoon and Hollywood mogul had descended into agoraphobia and paranoia. Beatty plays the increasingly discombobulated Hughes but his is a supporting role. The protagonists are a pair of aspiring young lovers, Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich). 

Marla, a bubbly ingénue hired as an actress by Hughes’ RKO Studio, is kept on salary but given nothing to do except attend acting lessons and wait for the start of Stella Starlight, a film whose production schedule is delayed and delayed. Frank, employed by the mysterious Hughes as her driver, is handed a set of rules whose cardinal point is: Don’t touch Marla or any other wannabe starlet under contract. One kiss, snuggle or other false move and he’s out of a job.

Naturally, the story hinges on the gradually mounting romantic-sexual interest between Marla and Frank. Alas, Collins and Ehrenreich have as much chemistry as a pair of living room chairs. What’s worth seeing in Rules Don’t Apply is Beatty’s eccentric performance as Hughes—a globe-spanning kingpin hiding from the world. Ensconced in hotel rooms with the curtains drawn and lamps on low, Hughes seldom emerges from seclusion. Months pass before Marla is finally summoned to a nocturnal meeting in Hughes’ hotel suite, where they share a late meal of TV dinners and a conversation that zigzags toward no destination. 

Beatty’s wife, Annette Benning, plays Marla’s strict Baptist mother and helps establish an ambience of Puritanical religiosity that plays out in attitudes toward sex and marriage reminiscent of Splendor in the Grass and similar movies of American mores from the early years of Beatty’s career. In Rules Don’t Apply, Beatty steals every scene—but there isn’t much to take away from a movie whose ostensible main plot line of sexually frustrated youth is enacted with such lack of interest from its key players.

Rules Don’t Apply

Lily Collins

Alden Ehrenreich

Directed by Warren Beatty

Rated PG-13

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