If “Rules Don’t Apply” is a comedy, why aren’t we laughing?
If it’s a romance, why don’t we feel something?
If it’s a tragedy, why don’t we care?
Warren Beatty’s latest feature as writer/director (his fifth, and the first since “Bulworth” in 1998) might be charitably described as a highly polished question mark.
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It’s good looking, competently acted and mildly affable. Basically it’s two hours of narrative noodling that never scores an emotional or intellectual point.
Ostensibly the film provides an opportunity for Beatty to tackle the character of real-life billionaire Howard Hughes, though Beatty doesn’t make an appearance as the nut job recluse until nearly 40 minutes into the movie.
“Rules” is, at its most basic level, a love triangle involving Hughes and two of his employees.
Marla (Lily Collins), a virginal Virginia beauty queen, has come to late-’50s Los Angeles after being signed to an acting contract by the mysterious Mr. Hughes. (In addition to his oil and aviation interests, Hughes is a Hollywood producer.)
Marla is but one of two dozen aspiring actresses — or Hughes’ harem, if you will — who are given a weekly stipend and acting and dance classes, and are ferried around town by a small army of limousine drivers whose behavior is strictly proscribed (no canoodling with the girls, no talking about Mr. Hughes’ business, etc.).
Marla and her driver, Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), have enough in common — including a shared religiosity — that Marla’s hovering mom (Annette Bening, aka Mrs. Warren Beatty) warns her daughter against any attraction to the handsome young chauffeur.
To the extent that “Rules Don’t Apply” has a plot it’s about Hughes’ growing mental issues and his determination to hang on to his business empire amid growing rumors of his insanity.
Like everything else in “Rules Don’t Apply,” Beatty’s performance goes halfway and no more. His Howard is batty but charming, an oddball genius — certainly not the tormented figure of Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator.”
(Beatty and his great cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, have opted to never shoot Hughes in bright light. He’s almost a semi comic vampire, living in a half-lit world of shadow. If nothing else “Rules” is a tutorial on shooting with low-level lighting.)
The film is populated with famous faces (Ed Harris, Haley Bennett, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen and more) who in most cases are criminally underused.
But then that goes as well for the two young leads. Ehrenreich, who earlier this year stole his every scene as a lasso-spinning movie matinee cowboy in the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!,” is utterly bland. Here’s hoping he returns to form for his starring role in the upcoming “Star Wars” Han Solo prequel.
Collins (“The Mortal Instruments”) fares somewhat better, giving Marla a keen mind and a smart mouth to go along with her unsullied beauty. But she’s stuck with a character arc that never feels real.
At least the film looks good, giving us a lush re-creation of Los Angeles of a half-century ago.
But that’s of minor import in a film that slowly goes nowhere.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s film coverage at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘Rules Don’t Apply’
Rated PG-13 for sexual material, brief strong language, thematic elements, drug references.