Was Warren Beatty’s Return to Cinema Worth the Wait?

'Rules Don’t Apply' is not terribly good - but it’s not terribly good in some really fascinating ways.

Howard Hughes is discussed long before he’s heard from in Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply, and heard long before he’s seen – an appropriately well-prepared entrance for the notoriously reclusive and eccentric billionaire. But it also seems the right kind of red carpet to roll out for writer/director/producer/star Beatty, who returns to the screen after one of the longer hiatuses in recent movie history – 18 years since his last directorial effort (1998’s Bulworth), and 15 years since he last acted in someone else’s movie (2001’s Town and Country). After waiting that long for new Beatty, it gives me no pleasure to report Rules Don’t Apply is not terribly good. But, as is so often the case with gifted filmmakers, not terribly good doesn’t mean not interesting.

It’s said that Beatty wanted to make a Hughes film since 1973, and almost got it done on several previous occasions; in the meantime, Jonathan Demme made one, Melvin and Howard, in 1980 (with a script by Bo Goldman, credited here with co-writing the story), Martin Scorsese made The Aviator in 2004 (co-starring Alec Baldwin, who also appears in this film, in a different role), and Lasse Halstrom made a film in 2006 called The Hoax, detailing a faked Hughes biography whose debunking plays a key role in Rules’ construction.

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The story Beatty finally settled on is an odd mish-mash of latter-day Hughes biopic and May-May-December love triangle, with Hail, Caesar’s Alden Ehrenreich as one of the drivers Hughes assigns to shuttle his many on-contract starlets around Hollywood, and The Mortal Instruments’ Lily Collins as one of those starlets. The Hughes organization strictly forbids any fraternization between them – the women are, it is understood, for Mr. Hughes’s exclusive use – but an affection blossoms between them anyway, until Hughes takes a shine to the young lady and complicates things.

At least, I think that’s what happens; Beatty hurries through those early scenes so breathlessly, it’s hard to latch on to much more than the barest of plot points. Of all the peculiarities of Rules Don’t Apply, the most glaring is its rhythm, which is not too slow or even necessarily too fast, it’s just… odd.  He rushes through scenes as if he’s on a full-sirens fire truck; entire characters and subplots seem to have been eliminated or reduced to their base elements (it’s otherwise hard to explain the barely-there roles filled by actors of Ed Harris and Amy Madigan’s magnitude). Scenes inexplicably end before they’ve even begun. My favorite finds our hero and Matthew Broderick, as one of his fellow drivers, waiting around in what should be their off-hours, eating sandwiches. Broderick takes a big bite, sighs, and says, “I used to have a life.” We settle in to hear his story, but nope, yank, the scene just ends, no time for any of that nonsense!

It’s tempting to give Beatty the benefit of the doubt here, to assume or at least hope that he’s going for some kind of an effect – conveying in the language of film the herky-jerk instability of life with Mr. Hughes. And maybe that’s true; the jarring, hard cuts in and out of music cues are clearly intentional (and effective), and the breakneck veering from one micro-scene to the next makes the occasional lengthy dialogue scenes stand out. And once he gets into a scene and stays there, it works; there’s a terrific conversation between Beatty and Ehrenreich that plays out as one long, wandering ramble, and another between Beatty and a very tipsy Collins that’s got the speed and energy of good screwball comedy.

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But oddly, she all but disappears from the second half of the picture, which keeps turning itself into exactly the kind of boilerplate Hughes biopic its rom-com construction seemed designed to avoid. And as it becomes more conventional, Beatty ends up using hoary score cues to tell us how to feel; it all but smothers the dialogue in a couple of key scenes, though based on what we hear, that’s not much of a loss. The film’s titles are kept until its conclusion, and after puzzling through what we’ve seen, it’s hard not to notice there are four credited editors. It feels like there were even more.

And yet. Beatty turns in a marvelous performance, capturing simultaneously the bloviating self-importance and deep-seated insecurities of this fascinating figure; he still has that great Beatty way of letting us see him think out loud when he speaks, portraying his characters as slightly dense but still not easily read. And he paints a vivid picture of Hollywood in the late 1950s – right around the time he arrived there himself – aided immeasurably by Caleb Deschanel’s knockout cinematography and Jeannine Oppewall‘s sumptuous production design. Collins is a delight, even when the character isn’t exactly a model of clarity, and Ehrenreich provides as much charm as he can in what amounts to the straight-man role.

In other words, there are things here that work, and other spots where you can see what Beatty was trying for, even if he couldn’t land it. Quentin Tarantino generated more headlines recently by reiterating that he’ll be retiring from filmmaking after two more features, a decision he’s often ascribed to the comparatively poor later efforts of legends like Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, and John Ford – directors that kept going after (arguably) they’d lost step with the times, and mastery of the art. But for every Rio Lobo, Buddy Buddy, or Cheyenne Autumn, there’s a Mad Max: Fury Road, Bridge of Spies, or Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a reminder that those who’ve been doing this a long time can still have something vibrant and heretofore unknown to offer. And now we have a new Warren Beatty film, which seems, in a strange way, to both prove Tarantino’s argument and refute it.

Rules Don’t Apply is out Wednesday.