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.
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.
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.
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 formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, intern at the Lewisville Texan Journal and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.