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AFI Fest 2016: Rules Don’t Apply (Movie Review)

rules dont apply posterIt is pretty fitting to see this year’s AFI Fest kick off with a film that tells the story of maverick filmmaker and business tycoon Howard Hughes. Produced, written and directed by Warren Beatty, nearly twenty years after his last directorial effort, Bulworth, the film serves as a semi-fictional biopic, a screwball comedy and a drama all rolled into one. Coming from an idea Beatty started developing 40 years ago, the film is a clear passion project and despite all the various issues involving tone and narrative construction, I dug it. Beatty and his four editors have assembled a messy film out of what is likely a ton of footage, but it was never uninteresting, features some terrific performances and even buries some interesting themes amidst all the Hughes-focused chaos.

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Beatty stars as Hughes, but we don’t really meet with him until about 20 minutes in. The real leads are Alden Ehrenreich as Frank Forbes and Lily Collins as Marla Mabrey. Frank is one of Hughes’ drivers with ambitions to be a businessman and a devout Methodist. Marla is an aspiring actress brought to Hollywood to be one of the women under Hughes’ RKO contracts and a devout Baptist. The religious aspect is important, as they both hold onto their convictions, despite the obvious attraction they have to each other. This is made even more difficult by both Hughes’ rules, which prohibit romantic interaction between his employees and what happens once Hughes finally enters the picture.

Shot to look lavish (aside from some occasionally clear CG) and deliberately old school (look at those rear projection driving scenes) by acclaimed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, Rules Don’t Apply joins Hail, Caesar! and Café Society as films that present the Golden Age of Hollywood in ways that allow the style to overtake the narrative. That said, all three of these films (regardless of quality and varying opinions) represent the filmmakers behind them. For Rules Don’t Apply, this is another sprawling effort from Beatty, who loads the film with recognizable actors and does what he can to tell the story of an edgy and sometimes charming individual.

It is important to note that the film is hardly factual, as far as being a biopic that delves into Hughes’ actual life. It is certainly inspired by Hughes’ life and features certain character and events that took place, but the film is less about getting all the details right and more about providing a look at this man’s personality in a lighter way and some romantic shenanigans also going on. Between this film and Martin Scorsese’s more fact-based The Aviator, the only thing they have in common is how little Beatty and DiCaprio actually look like Hughes. With that in mind, does this path lead to a good film?

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It is a bit complicated, but Rules Don’t Apply has a lot going for it, especially in the first half. While the rushed editing style dares to throw the film off course almost immediately, it is the endearing work from both Ehrenreich and Collins that keeps things afloat. Not hurting are the early appearances of Annette Bening and Martin Sheen, along with Matthew Broderick who stays around the whole way through as Levar, one of Hughes’ more loyal men. It is the banter that helps move this thing along and keep up a peppiness that makes one appreciate what’s taking place on a screwball level.

Then we get to Hughes. Beatty hasn’t been on screen since the 2001 box office disaster that was Town & Country, but the 79-year old actor is completely game to play all of the facets of who Hughes was. This means playing up the quirks, the social awkwardness, the mystery and frustrations that made the man what he was in the later period of his life. There is an enigmatic quality that Beatty and Hughes seem to share and that is certainly played up here as far as making a presence that is felt within the film’s two hour runtime.

Sadly, the film does get hung up on how to best handle all of its pieces. The romantic comedy stuff is fun, even if it does lead to misunderstandings and bold proclamations (and a song) that allows for the film’s title to be stated with unintentionally humorous meaning. There is also the large portion of the film where Marla basically disappears and leaves us with Hughes and Frank dealing with business and the tycoon’s idiosyncrasies (mainly demands for different ice cream flavors). That, along with the fact that Marla is wooed over by a man as old as her grandfather, makes for a film that spends a lot of its time in territory that almost seems purposefully satirical.

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The self-serious nature of the film’s drama and the business-related antics seem reflective of what Hollywood and society used to be and still sort of is. Rules Don’t Apply doesn’t seem to be overly concerned with getting deeper with ideas it introduces about Hughes’ treatment of women and his popularity when it comes to dealing with how he uses his money and interacts with other companies. That’s a shame, as the film sees Beatty having fun in spite of his narrative having a lack of much cohesion when it comes time to bringing the romance, drama and business-focused stakes together. Sure, there is a Hollywood ending that feels in line with the film’s Rules Don’t Apply wants to partially emulate, but I could only wish it was stronger in bringing together the other major elements.

Still, for all the ways the film complicates itself and strays from its initial focus, there is an entertaining film here. It’s a bit of a mess, but a fun one that doesn’t require the same sort of scrutiny that would be necessary for something like Beatty’s Reds. Rules Don’t Apply is a farce that plays by some old school rules. We don’t see that kind of film much anymore. It may have a certain sensibility that calls to question how we look at things today versus what the 1950s were like, but I have a sneaking suspicion Beatty is smart enough to know that. It just also means, warts and all, he chose to accept the film he has made. Fortunately for me, that Beatty charm allows for different types of chemistry to shine throughout this flawed feature.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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