Warren Beatty has been trying to get Rules Don't Apply made for over a decade and now he's finally succeeded. The film being a passion project, there's no denying its got heart; Beatty got his start in Hollywood around the same time as the two young lovebirds in the film and the story succeeds in making you feel the same nostalgia for Old Hollywood that no doubt inspired Beatty to return to it. But while the Old Hollywood razzle dazzle brings a sense of longing to both those who lived through it and those who wish they had, the film itself tries to include too much, and there's where it fumbles the ball: By trying to tell too many stories, Rules Don't Apply ends up not telling any one of them satisfactorily.
Rules Don't Apply tells the story of two new arrivals to Hollywood, Marla Mabrey and Frank Forbes. Marla (played by Lily Collins) is a virginal Baptist beauty who arrives in LA in 1958 under contract with Howard Hughes, and Frank Forbes (played by the new Han Solo actor, Alden Ehrenreich) is her driver and an almost equally religious Methodist. Although Frank is engaged to his seventh grade sweetheart back home in Fresno, he immediately strikes up a nervous flirtation with Marla. Together, he and Marla go through the motions of should-they-shouldn't-they due to their religious beliefs and the fact that they're contractually not allowed to be together. Amidst all of this, they're desperately trying to meet their secretive and wacky employer, the legendary Howard Hughes (played by Warren Beatty), who has the power to make or break their careers.
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Compelling plot, right? Here are the things to like about Rules Don't Apply: The costumes are wonderful, and the locations, props and color palette make Old Hollywood come alive immediately. Both Lily Collin's Marla and Alden Ehrenreich's Frank are believable (although perhaps Ehrenreich succeeds a bit more in this regard) as two well intentioned kids who develop a real connection with each other that's allowed to mature over time. Additionally, Marla's story, which gives a more nuanced perspective on what it was like for a young woman trying to make it in Hollywood in the late '50s, takes up a good portion of the film.
And last but not least, you can just tell that Warren Beatty's been itching to play Howard Hughes, and he pulls it off well. While Leonardo DiCaprio's Hughes in The Aviator was no doubt more comprehensive, Beatty's sees Hughes in his later years, and while this depiction also shows him descending into debilitating mental illness, Beatty takes the time to also demonstrates the man's playfulness. Perhaps that's one of the best things about Rules Don't Apply: It isn't a full-on drama, which allows each character time to just have a bit of darn fun.
While there's a lot to like about Rules Don't Apply, there are plenty of snags that weigh the movie down. Much of the premise is predictable (i.e. boy + girl + forbidden relationship = drama), and some of the plotlines are just downright cliché (i.e. girl who doesn't drink gets upset, drinks a bottomless bottle of champagne, does something she regrets that has serious consequences). Additionally, Rules Don't Apply is not based on a true story, which might in some cases be a plus, but this time actually takes away from the story's fascination and makes the plot's meandering less forgivable.
But the most egregious offense is against the female protagonist, Marla Mabrey. Out of all the story threads Rules Don't Apply could have focused on, hers would have been the most fascinating by far, but her story sadly gets left by the wayside mid-movie in favor of focusing on Howard Hughes. We've had The Aviator, we've seen men's stories about Old Hollywood, but we have yet to see one from a woman's perspective. While it's refreshing to get even a limited modern take on what entering Hollywood back in the late '50s was like for a young woman, once the movie switches its focus to Hughes, Marla becomes just another pawn in a man's game. Sure, she shows up once to make a scene, but then she stays away until the exact moment she is needed to save the day for Hughes — and she's not even that angry about what he did, or didn't, do. It's not to say that Beatty totally fails in his endeavor to tell a woman's story — her story arc wasn't overly dramatic or forced in a misplaced effort to make it relevant for 2017 — but if it had been the focus of the movie it would have felt tighter and more compelling as a whole.
Ultimately, the main problem with Rules Don't Apply is that it tries to tell too many stories, and doesn't fully commit to any of them. It starts out with the love story of two young, ambitious kids in Hollywood, but half way through it switches the focus to Howard Hughes's increasingly precarious mental state, with the end haphazardly reconciling the two halves for a happily ever after. Meanwhile, the viewer doesn't feel totally fulfilled by either the love story or the look into Howard Hughes's life. It's not to say that Rules Don't Apply is a bad film, but it leaves you wishing they could have picked a path and stuck to it. Unfortunately, the rules of good storytelling do still apply.
What did you think of Rules Don't Apply?