Thursday, December 15, 2016

Rules Don't Apply: A Review


I believe 2016, contrary to what my colleague Christian Toto thinks, will go down as one of the worst years for film (though to be fair, at the time of this writing I have seen only three of his Top Ten...and respectfully disagree on one of them.  Actually, while I wasn't crazy about Captain America: Civil War, at least I didn't dislike it, so there's that).  Unlike my dear Mr. Toto, I struggled to find a rational Top Ten List (for a good part of the year, Gods of Egypt was on said list, not because I think it was a great film, but because it wasn't as horrifying as some of the others of 2016 and was unapologetically campy). 

The debacle of 2016 in terms of cinema now leads me, sadly, to Rules Don't Apply.  Only in a frightful year like 2016 can we have two wildly different people as Andy Samberg and Warren Beatty face similar circumstances when it comes to the box office.  Rules Don't Apply was released on November 23, 2016.  Two weeks later, it goes to second-run theaters.  Allowing for a week's interim, that means that, just like Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, it was pulled after one week and dumped to suffer a most inglorious death.  I know many critics loved Popstar (I was not one of them).  Conversely, many critics disliked Rules Don't Apply.  I join in that chorus, though I note with some sadness that many potentially good moments and aspects of the film were buried under so much rubble.

Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a Methodist, is a young driver in the employee of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (Beatty).  His new assignment is the winner of the Apple Blossom Queen pageant, Baptist Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), escorted by her mother Lucy (Annette Bening).  The Mabreys are here because Mr. Hughes has put our devout, virginal Apple Blossom Queen under contract for a film at $400/week (which incidentally, is still more than what I make in a week, and we're talking in 1959 money here).  While Baptist Marla is aware that she is, in her own estimation, neither a great singer or actress, she has confidence in her songwriting.

The Methodist Frank and the Baptist Marla are both aware of the rules, particularly those involving drivers and contract players: there should be no involvement between drivers and contract players.  Marla, a devout Baptist who won't have sex...because it might lead to dancing, is growing more and more irritated at not seeing Mr. Hughes, or even getting so much as the promised screen test.  For his part, despite being engaged to his 7th-grade sweetheart, the Methodist Frank finds the Baptist Marla more attractive.

Frank is hoping for an audience with Mr. Hughes to help finance a land development deal, and Marla just wants a chance to audition.  Marla does eventually meet the eccentric, reclusive Mr. Hughes, who is surprisingly noncommittal about everything.

Eventually, Frank and Marla, despite their faiths, share a kiss, a passionate kiss, one that leads to Methodist Frank having an ejaculation, and Marla not only boozing it up at a second meeting with Mr. Hughes but losing her virginity to him.

At this point, I'd like to point out that Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich are 27, and Warren Beatty is 79, a mere 52 years age difference.  Just for your info.

It's at this point that Rules Don't Apply shifts into being more about Hughes and his growing mental instability: ordering and living off nothing but banana nut ice cream, flying to other countries to seek asylum from people who want to put him in an asylum, and going by his whims, driving everyone around him crazy.  Fortunately, he's surrounded by total sycophants who go along with every decree by someone who is clearly insane.

Marla discovers she's pregnant, and contemplates abortion, but when we end up where we start, in 1964 at the cusp of Hughes' telephone interview from Acapulco to deny claims in a book that he's bonkers, Marla shows up, with a little boy named Matthew. 

The film does not state overtly whether Matthew is or is not Howard Hughes' illegitimate child (and thus his heir).  It's when Marla gives back a ring Hughes had presented her all those years back that Frank finally realizes who gave her such an expensive gift (she always refusing to say who had been her benefactor).  They go off together, and Howard Hughes literally draws the curtains on the world, slipping further into the darkness of his own mind.

It's curious that Rules Don't Apply is, to my mind, being sold as some sort of romantic comedy between Methodist Frank and Baptist Marla because the film isn't about Methodist Frank and Baptist Marla.

As a side note, I've found that Methodists are by and large pretty lackadaisical when it comes to following Scriptural doctrines, though not as bad as Episcopalians, who are essentially atheists who go to church, though I digress.

Rules Don't Apply, I would argue, starts out being about Frank and Marla, but like a car slowly careening out of control, you can see it slowly start to drift, and drift, and drift further and further away from being about Frank and Marla and being more the Hughes biopic that Beatty has wanted to make all his life.

Never mind that a better director beat Beatty to the punch by 12 years when Martin Scorsese made The Aviator.  Scorsese ended his Howard Hughes biopic when Hughes had triumphed over his nemesis, Pan Am's Juan Trippe, but was on the verge of total mental collapse.  Beatty opted to start his own Hughes biopic long after Hughes became a jet-setting recluse, and try to tie in these two minor players into the story.

However, the end result is a disorganized, convoluted mess, where Rules Don't Apply starts with Frank & Marla, then brings Hughes in to make it into a strange and unbalanced love triangle, to then shifting completely into a Hughes-centered film where Frank and especially Marla are all but forgotten.

It's absolutely astonishing that Beatty not only directed this horror but wrote it too.  The script is perhaps one of the clumsiest, more unorganized and chaotic I've seen on the screen.  Characters are barely introduced (if introduced at all) and later dropped with nary a reason or rhyme.  The bevy of beauties Hughes squirrelled away, which would have made for an interesting story, are completely forgotten by the end.  The hangers-on of Hughes, whom we barely meet, come and go quickly.

At one point, Hughes fires his loyal and exasperated security head Levar (Matthew Broderick), who finally tells Hughes he's insane...only to see him back in the 1964 sequence.  We don't know whether he was rehired, whether Hughes rescinded the firing immediately afterwards (Hughes was a man who ruled by whim) or why Levar would return to someone who was clearly not in a right state of mind.  Instead, we just take it.

Worse off is Beatty's maddening penchant to foreshadow so much by endless repetition.  We hear endlessly that Frank and especially Marla are devout Christians (at least Marla is, Frank stating in conversation to his fiancée that he was worried that her father knew that they'd gone 'all the way', a remarkable statement for someone who apparently seemed shocked that he would ejaculate after a bit of lip-locking).  We are told endlessly that Mr. Hughes will fire any driver who is somehow involved with a 'contract player' we should know that these devout Christians will be corrupted and that they will become involved.

If Beatty had focused on one story (the best one being that of Marla and Frank, with Hughes always a strange shadow), Rules Don't Apply might have worked.  Actually, it probably would have given how good both Ehrenreich and Collins were.  They were much better than the material, which sometimes left one wondering if even they knew what was going on.  They are both beautiful people who brought a believable innocence and charm to their roles.  While Ehrenreich has in Frank a more hesitant, conflicted manner as he struggles between desire and duty, Collins manages to make Marla almost a screwball character (particularly when finally speaking to Hughes in a rapid-fire manner).

It's Beatty who humiliates himself as writer, director, and actor.  As a writer, Rules Don't Apply starts spinning out of control both in the story it actually has as well as in what it does to the characters (I didn't believe once that Marla's one passionate kiss would lead her to become a drunk slut within hours of her lip-lock.  Brought to mind The Killers' Mr. Brightside: it was only a kiss/it was only a kiss...).  As a director, Rules Don't Apply has no focus, going from a romantic story to a comedy to a descent into insanity.  As an actor, Beatty seems to do nothing more but chuckle through many if not all of his scenes, perhaps bemused at a joke only he understands. 

Rules Don't Apply does have a couple of things apart from Ehrenreich and Collins. Its theme song, Rules Don't Apply, is a sweet little number that describes our two thwarted lovebirds well.  Why is it that bad films end up having good songs (with some exceptions: Spectre was a bad film and Writing's on the Wall is a dreadful song, Best Original Song Oscar be damned).

Take away that, and Rules Don't Apply would be a sad way for Warren Beatty to end his career on (though I have a sense that it is better than Town & Country).  Warren, you're better than Andy Samberg...pull it together man.

Stick to the rules of filmmaking. 


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