Yikes. Bursting with exhausting manic energy, Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes pet project Rule Don’t Apply is not so much a misfire as it is a gatling gun firing on spin-cycling decimating everything in its path. Time away from movie-making hasn’t served Beatty as an actor, director or especially as a screenwriter as the film haplessly throws as much on the screen as it can grab with only two hands and limitless gumption. If there is anything to admire in the film, it’s the almost reckless abandon it has for the simplest of guidelines for narrative structure and character development. It’s difficult to not be bummed out that this might very well be Warren Beatty final screen work.
Beatty’s long-storied passion to make a film on Hughes has resulted in a film that is shockingly confused about what to make of Hughes, or whether or not its even his story. The initial focus is on a Hughes flunky driver (Alden Ehrenreich) and an aspiring actress (Lily Collins) under Hughes’s payroll and the burgeoning love between them, while Hughes looms as a shadowy figure behind them. The love story is a bizarre mix of Christian sexual repression and Hollywood navel gazing that’s more than enough for the film to handle before Hughes even really enters the plot. Once he does, the film tips into unintended, erratic farce with the unstoppable force of a freight train.
The film isn’t just a mess because of its lack of discernment on the story it wants to tell, but it also can’t decide on how to present its subject. Hughes is by turns pervert, freakshow, sweetheart, and victim – not a complex figure embodying all traits but one histrionic note struck to next. Ehrenreich and Collins’s considerable charms are sunk by forceful emoting that reek of square-peg-round-hole directorial notes that the actors themselves don’t believe in. Add in a freakishly cast ensemble of famous faces in fruitless roles pulling focus in individual scenes (like Ed Harris lurking behind a door at his daughter and Ehrenreich) and you have the most underwater cast in some time.
It should be preposterous that Rules Don’t Apply works on almost no level at all considering the assemblage of talent. Veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s lovely shadowy compositions are out of sync with the film’s mostly cheap looking candy confection framing, which is made worse by whiplash-inducing cuts. The pacing and flow of the film is all over the map, at once overlong and airless but wafer-thin.
The experience of Rules Don’t Apply is like being thrown around like a rag doll, its character depiction almost ghoulish in its unreality. It’s a frustrating and vacuous sit, depressing for how much it foils its assets and confounding in its unexpected brainlessness.