Director Warren Beatty/2016
Rules Don’t Apply.
If ever there was a fitting description to summarize the life of Warren Beatty, then this might be the best. Warren has epitomized the life of a Hollywood star, and is considered by many to be Hollywood royalty. Known for both his early days of philandering and partying, as well as his past 24 years of a storybook marriage to Annette Bening, Beatty has lived at both ends of the Hollywood spectrum. Having mostly been out of film since 1998’s Bulworth, save for one role in 2001’s Town & Country, Warren has simply been living life, and helping to raise his children. What has brought him back is his long discussed project about the life of aviator Howard Hughes, though with some twists. But hey, rules don’t apply to Beatty. While there is a lot of anticipation for a new Beatty film, this is either going to divide you into two very firm camps. Either you are going to be severely disappointed in the film as a wasted opportunity, or you will enjoy it for what it is.
For those who are set to be disappointed, it is a very conventional film, and not the rule breaker it could be, or the title suggests it should be. The main focus of the film is on the naive Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins). She has recently arrived to Hollywood as a contracted actress with Howard Hughes where she has been given a beautiful home, pay, and a driver. She is everything Hollywood is not. She is a devout Baptist, and virgin, who is apt to not go and party. She doesn’t drink, socially or otherwise, and is simply driven to do her first screen test and work in Hollywood. Her strict, and conservative mother Lucy Mabrey (Annette Bening), has come with her to make sure that her daughter stays the chaste and devout person that she is.
In short, I found myself having missed Beatty in his prolonged screen absence, and hoping that this isn’t his final word.
Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is Marla’s driver when they arrive. Like Marla, he has just been recently hired by Howard Hughes, and is driven to climb the economic ladder. He is engaged to his high school sweetheart, who lives back home with her parents so that she can continue to run the veterinarian clinic. On the surface, he is as wholesome as she, though he is not Baptist as Lucy Mabrey notes. He is a Methodist. This contrast of their beliefs and the entertainment industry they are serving is the true driver here. Rules might work for religion says the story, but in Hollywood….not so much.
The film vacillates between both of their experiences as they take first steps into the deep end of Hollywood culture. Frank as he tries to learn from his mentor Levar Mathis (Matthew Broderick), and Marla as she begins to befriend some of the other 26 actresses under contract. The thing that they both desire, and are still waiting for, is to simply meet the infamous Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty). The audience is also waiting on the appearance of Beatty with equally baited breath.
Beatty does not disappoint. He arrives shrouded in mystery, and with many of the legendary quirks of the real Howard Hughes. His involvement in both Marla and Frank’s lives will have a profound impact on the trajectory of their careers, beliefs, and lives as each finds themselves in vastly different places than they first thought.
For those who are willing to enjoy this film for what it is, you will find, as I did, that it is simply a breath of fresh air in a fall season that has been dripping with melancholy and despair. It might be because many films have been focused on darker subject matter (American Pastoral, Moonlight, Loving, The Birth of a Nation), but also the changing seasons, and the most bitter Presidential election in recent history. In spite of all of that, Beatty provides us a story that while conventional, is smart, funny, and hopeful, even while dealing with serious themes and heartache. In short, I found myself having missed Beatty in his prolonged screen absence, and hoping that this isn’t his final word. The film, simply allowed me to step out of the real world and all of its issues for a couple of hours and enjoy my time at the movies, and that is a valuable commodity.
Despite being nearly 80 years old, Beatty looks as if he hasn’t really aged since his last big film Bulworth. He is still every bit the Hollywood royalty that he has been for so many years. But rules don’t apply to Warren Beatty. Sure he is the star of this film, along with being one of the writers and the director. But he is also not the star of this film. He has simultaneously cast himself as merely one of the leads in this film, and also as one of the supporting cast to the larger story of Marla and Frank. And while many parallels can be drawn between Beatty and the character he is playing, you could also say the same thing about the other characters and Beatty. Like Marla, Beatty arrived in Hollywood as a doe-eyed wholesome Christian, and in the end found himself as the poster boy for everything that Christianity stands against. Like Frank, he has ambition, and has seen his ambition and lifestyle distract him from what matters most, and what he has again embraced through his marriage. In no subtle way, Beatty has made a Howard Hughes film about…..well, Beatty.
Beatty has also surrounded himself with a strong supporting cast with appearances by Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen, Oliver Platt, Ed Harris, and Paul Schneider, but is content to fade into the background to let others shine. The last time I saw Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin in concert, it was much the same way. Here is the guy everybody is here to see sing, but he was so gracious to step behind his backing band and let them each have opportunities to shine. Strong, confident, and gracious people know how to make others feel important too.
Beatty is able to do that here. He allows Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich to establish themselves and make this film their own, even if everyone is still waiting for Beatty to reemerge after letting Collins and Ehrenreich have their time to shine. Beatty’s disappearance in the film only magnifies his presence all the more when he reappears on screen to convince the world that Howard Hughes is alive and well, only to draw the curtain once more.
Will Rules Don’t Apply be the way that Beatty ends his career? Will he give us this one last film to remind us of his greatness before fading back behind the curtain into his domestic life? Or will he seek, like Howard Hughes, to have another opportunity to take hold of those controls and take flight once more? We might have expected a more daring effort from what may be Warren Beatty’s swan song, but as the title and his life suggest: For Warren Beatty, Rules Don’t Apply. And so while it may be conventional, for me, it was a breath of fresh air in a season of despair.