There’s a very thin line for filmmakers between a passion project and a vanity project, and it’s a line that only gets slimmer when you choose to produce, write, direct, and star in your long-gestating piece. It’s also a line that Warren Beatty crosses the second that Rules Don’t Apply starts, making for one of the most tonally confused and misguided films I’ve seen in years. Beatty has had this story about Howard Hughes (who Beatty himself plays) in the works for decades, which makes sense, given how out of touch and dated the whole thing feels. Whereas films like Hail Caesar and Jackie this year have brought the ‘50s and ‘60s to excitingly relevant life, Rules Don’t Apply plays like a low-rent movie from the era in which it is set.
Hughes takes a supporting role in this story, which finds the equally alliteratively named Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) blossoming a romance in early ‘60s Hollywood. Marla is an actress under contract at Hughes’ RKO pictures, with everything she needs bought and paid for by the studio, despite the fact that she’s never met Hughes and hasn’t even been brought in for her promised screen test. Frank also works for Hughes, but as a driver, so is under strict orders (which are repeated ad nauseam) to not engage in any sort of relations with the actresses.
Yet, inevitably, Frank and Marla’s connection is so strong that they decide that those rules don’t apply to them. In these earlier stages of the film, the romance is sweet enough, though the stakes never feel very high and the jokes don’t land, especially an extended gag about premature ejaculation that would struggle to fit into even a far baudier film. Trundling along with these problems, Rules Don’t Apply seems like it’s going to be a forgettable but functional period-piece comedy. Then, a scene in the middle that is so hideously misjudged in its content and implications tips the whole thing into a deep chasm of awful from which it can never emerge.
This drastic and dire change of mood is prompted by the eventual on-screen appearance of Hughes. Beatty, in both his writing and performance, cannot decide if Hughes is a genuinely mentally ill man or just wacky. This ambiguity adds a whole extra level of disgust to the aforementioned scene, in which Hughes effectively rapes a near-catatonically drunk Marla (who is at least 40 years his junior), which is played for some sort of laugh. It’s so tone-deaf that it’s hard to believe that it’s a real scene in a high-ish profile 2016 movie, and whenever Beatty returns to the consequences of that evening, the film just digs itself into a deeper and deeper hole.
Even with the legendary Beatty on screen along with a supporting cast including Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, and many more, the only cast member who actually turns in a good performance is Ehrenreich. The saving grace of the movie, Ehrenreich manages to sell Frank’s transformation from nervous LA newcomer to callously confident deal-maker with subtle changes in every scene, until he’s eventually a character nearly unrecognisable as the one we first met. It’s further proof of the quality of Ehrenreich’s work (after impressing hugely in Hail Caesar), that he can stand out as a shining positive even in what is otherwise an absolute disaster.