Rules Don’t Apply  marks Warren Beatty’s return to the director’s chair, which he most recently occupied for 1998’s Bulworth. Similar to that film, Beatty takes a comical approach to a serious topic with Rules Don’t Apply telling the story of Howard Hughes. The eccentric billionaire is known for owning TWA airlines, RKO pictures, and a variety of other enterprises most notably received a biographical film in 2004 with Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. Yet, Beatty’s picture is hardly a rehash of that film as Rules Don’t Apply opts to wear many different hats. Part romantic comedy, part celebration of old Hollywood akin to Hail, Caesar, and part Howard Hughes biopic, Rules Don’t Apply hits its targets with varying effect and winds up often becoming a fun, yet oddly unpolished production.
Stream of consciousness: Often taking the form of a stream of consciousness, it is both a gift and a curse that this consciousness most likely belongs to Howard Hughes. Jumping between the burgeoning relationship between RKO contract actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), Howard Hughes’ (Warren Beatty) issues with his business and investors, and various other elements of their respective lives, the film simply lacks cohesion. It takes an awkward hopscotch-styled approach its story and never seems to be content with telling any single story. Instead, it opts to tell a cast of stories and never really settles in on a single topic. It is a fair question to sit and wonder what Rules Don’t Apply was really all about at the end of the film or at any select moment in the film. It seems to ride this wave of eccentricity-derived straight from Hughes himself and attempts to stick the landing. Though this approach certainly has its flaws and undoubtedly divided audiences upon its release, it makes it for an entirely captivating watch. As the film skips from moment-to-moment and character-to-character with no apparent purpose or reason, it becomes a highly unique and entertaining film, escaping the trappings of the romantic comedy and biographical genres that it often threatens to become.
Ehrenreich shines, yet again: Further adding to the charm of the film is the acting, particularly from Alden Ehrenreich. In many respects, his turn as Frank Forbes is not unlike his performance in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar, which also came out in 2016 and similarly focused on old Hollywood. As Rules Don’t Apply is also a comedy, the film allows Ehrenreich to further display his comedic skills with a similar sort of drawl with comedic lines spilling out naturally. Incredibly relaxed and seeming practically surprised that he is saying these words, Ehrenreich’s comedic role here is of the highest quality and steals the show consistently. As the flighty and innocent Marla Mabrey, Lily Collins is a good romantic match for Ehrenreich’s Frank with two developing an excellent romantic and comedic rapport with one another over the course of their time on screen together. From the very beginning, it is easy to see the chemistry between the two and the two really play around with it and make for quite the charming on-screen couple as they both explore the forbidden and innocent nature of their young romance.
Charming romance: It is in this relationship between Frank and Marla that the film finds it greatest achievements with moments of them driving around Los Angeles or overlooking the canyon by Mulholland Drive feeling akin to Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. This feeling is only further solidified when Marla performs the film’s titular song, “The Rules Don’t Apply”. A light and a somewhat hopeful ode to her friend Frank, the song feels like something that would have wound up in La La Land with its encouragement of dreams and the pursuit thereof. While Collins may not be the best singer, moments such as that really speak to the adorableness of their romance and the chemistry between the duo. Had the film remained focused on this romance set against old Hollywood, it is entirely possible that Rules Don’t Apply would have been a better film. Central to this love is their religion with Marla being a Baptist and Frank a practicing Methodist. Both incredibly religious upon arriving in Hollywood, they are forced to tip-toe around their religious upbringings and the differences in their beliefs while also exploring their romantic compatibility. Rules Don’t Apply explores this theme of religion in Hollywood as a whole throughout, but it receives its greatest examination through this relationship as both are faced with temptations and situations that will make them question and consider altering their beliefs to satisfy their wants and needs in the world they now inhabit.
Divided focus with scattershot editing: Yet, it insists on making the film about Howard Hughes. Though Warren Beatty is terrific, delivering a great late period performance as the eccentric billionaire and capturing his eccentric, yet chaotically organized nature, the film never feels quite settled in as it cuts between its various storylines. In the opening act and the beginning of the second act, the film rushes through scenes, as it cuts rapidly from moment-to-moment and speeds through exposition and the introductions of key characters. Later on, things settle down with scenes being far more drawn out. However, that is not to say things do not still change rapidly as the film plays up the absurdity of Hughes’ lifestyle and management style. In Rules Don’t Apply, the storyline changes as much as the Tinseltown it tries to honor with scenes often jumping from storyline to storyline akin to how Hughes’ train of thought changes dramatically from line-to-line. This can make the film feel entirely odd and unfocused as it never seems to really find itself and figure out what it is all about.
Undercooked characters and wasted supporting roles: The writing suffers the same fate as we are introduced to characters portrayed by Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Steve Coogan, Taissa Farmiga, Ed Harris, Oliver Platt, and more, though none receive more than a few lines. Other side characters portrayed by Annette Bening and Haley Bennett also appears, neither of whom are able to carve out a niche in this sea of characters and scenes that often lack a common thread between one another. Mirroring the scattershot editing that seems unable to pick a thread to focus on, the writing and characters feel rushed and trying to cram far too much into the two-hour runtime. It would not be a surprise to learn that the film was much longer before Beatty was forced to cut it down, as the film’s cast of characters feels mostly wasted as none are able to really stand out from the crowd and instead fade into the background after being given a line or two apiece.