Warren Beatty returns to the silver screen in sharp Hughes biopic

Images courtesy 20th Century Fox.

Rules Don’t Apply is a movie split in half between joy and somberness, the big-eyed dream of Hollywood and its unremarkable reality. It’s an extremely good and interesting film.

Too bad no one will ever see it.

Rules Don’t Apply is partially a biopic of Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty, who also writes, directs and produces his first film in 15 years), but is mostly a love story between aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), one of Hughes’ drivers. Hughes is a super-creepy old man who keeps a network of young actresses he brings in to Hollywood and drivers he maintains for them whose explicit purpose is to make sure the actresses don’t have sex. The drivers are strictly forbidden from trying anything, both characters are deeply Christian and Forbes has a fiance, Sarah Bransford (Taissa Farminga), back in Fresno, but he and Mabrey can’t keep their eyes off each other. Their sexual tension builds and eventually erupts. Then, the movie wakes up to a sobering second half in which they quickly split and their lives crumble.

Throughout the film, Hughes desperately clings to his heavily shadowed rooms and ever-changing favorite flavor of ice cream. This may be about the same man, but Rules Don’t Apply is a very different depiction of him than in The Aviator.

The first half of the movie is about sex. Raw as it comes. The leads don’t have much in common and every reason to steer clear of each other, but their attraction sizzles through the screen. The film cuts rapidly through their pastors talking about lust and Forbes’ boss, Levar Mathis (Matthew Broderick), teasing him about his obvious obsession, then comes to a dead stop as they lock eyes. Collins lights up the screen, and Ehrenreich delivers a tense, angry performance that he only builds on in the second half.

The key to making a love story work is making the audience fall in love as the characters do. You don’t necessarily fall in love with Mabrey and Forbes, but you want to fuck them. You want to fuck them hard.

There’s a jarring distinction between the movie’s halves. The first is fast and light, almost impossible to keep up with. The concept of a scene, with a setting and a group of characters, almost becomes moot as the camera skips gleefully across Los Angeles. At one point, the shot cuts from mid-angles of four different characters in four different locations in less than two seconds.

While this would be trouble for most movies — Warcraft does essentially the same thing, after all — but where that movie was a directionless mess that felt mostly like it was cramming for time, Rules Don’t Apply’s blitz editing is backed up by its brilliant script. Entire scenes worth of meaning is frequently packed into just two or three lines and some glances. This movie takes the idea of brevity being the soul of wit to the absolute extreme. Easing the audience in with shorter and shorter scenes — many of which incorporate their short duration as a punchline — viewers are allowed to enjoy the editing style’s whimsy.

The editing also helps disguise the movie’s timeline. Everything is clearly taking place over a long period of time — subtitles say five years and change, though they don’t really need to — and the editing communicates the idea that characters never know when they’ll see each other again and the waiting involved in that while making viewers never wait for a moment. Think along the lines of The Departed, but somehow even faster.

Then, suddenly, it’s over. Mabrey defects from Hughes’ harem as Forbes becomes his primary lieutenant. After a brief, upsetting transition, the film follows him as he combs through Hughes’ deepening madness, only cutting back to Mabrey to show how poorly her life is going.

The filmmaking style completely changes. The film manages to mostly keep its pace, but shed its joy. The scenes are a little longer, but this is primarily accomplished by a tonal shift and a sharper spotlight on Hughes’ erratic and increasingly dangerous behavior. The camera spends much more time in his shadowy rooms. While before the film incorporated his madness within its happy-go-lucky tone, it’s now a stark portrait of a man fallen from grace, then from sanity.

Beatty deserves no end of praise for this film. It’s expertly crafted and meticulously executed. The last two-act movie I remember with such a jarring and intentional clash of styles is Kill Bill, and that movie put a six-month delay between releasing the second half.

But at the same time, the film is expertly crafted to feel acutely like falling in love and then suffering the consequences of a night of drunken decision-making. It’s a veritable emotional roller coaster, but not one you necessarily want to ride.

Recasting Harrison Ford is a uniquely daunting task. A big reason I was dreading the Han Solo spinoff was that they were talking about schmucks like Miles Teller or Ansel Elgort for the lead role, then Ehrenreich blew everybody away in Hail, Caesar! earlier this year. His star would be rising meteorically even if he hadn’t been cast as a new generation’s Han Solo. Now, where did we land on Chris Pratt as Indiana Jones?

Rules Don’t Apply is heading toward one of the worst openings of all time after a debacle of a marketing campaign, and that’s a sad thing. Between the subject matter of Hughes himself, a 79-year-old Hollywood legend returning to the screen in Beatty and the all-star cast — in addition to Broderick, favorites like Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen and Martin Sheen all have secondary roles — this movie has a treasure trove of selling points. While it isn’t necessarily recommended, it’s an excellent work of art that deserves a hell of a lot more than it’s ever going to get.

Leopold Knopp is a journalism student at the University of North Texas. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

This entry was posted in Entropy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s