With 14 Oscar nominations under his belt for directing, writing, producing and acting in his pictures, including one competitive victory (for directing 1981's Reds) and one honorary prize, Warren Beatty is unimpeachably among the most powerful and talented figures to have ever graced Hollywood.
Yet, for such a legend, looking back, the Beatty filmography is actually an awfully spotty one. For every tour-de-force production like Bonnie and Clyde and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, there's a supreme underwhelmer like Ishtar and The Fortune. Beatty's directorial efforts - just look at the classic likes of Heaven Can Wait, Bulworth and his Oscar-winning Reds - have generally been terrific...when he's allowed his name to be officially attached in the end. It is well-known Beatty called the shots on both Love Affair and Town & Country, both of which are depressingly dismal endeavors.
Rules Don't Apply, Beatty's first official directing-writing credit since Bulworth in 1998, falls somewhere toward the middle of the filmmaker's collective work. It's nowhere near as stunning as Reds or entertaining as Heaven Can Wait but nor does it induce the headaches that other Beatty works have.
Set in 1958, the picture opens with Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a devout Baptist beauty queen from small town Virginia, arriving in Hollywood, where she plans to become an actress. Under contract with the elusive entrepreneur and film tycoon Howard Hughes (Beatty), Mabrey spends her early days in La La Land getting acquainted with her driver, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), who is also on the Hughes payroll. The two carry on a charming flirtation that tests their staunch religious beliefs and must remain hidden from Hughes, who forbids romance between his employees and actresses.
The film's opening, Beatty-free half hour marks a fine showcase for Collins and Ehrenreich, both immensely talented and charismatic performers, long overdue for such leading turns. While their chemistry is a delight, however, this section suffers a ton from poor editing, with abrupt cutaways as actors seem to be in mid-sentence and an overwhelming feeling that a hefty chunk of material was left on the cutting room floor. There is a scene, for instance, featuring the great Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in which the Oscar-nominees have virtually no dialogue. Scenes featuring Annette Bening as Mabrey's mother also feel trimmed to the bone. Perhaps this explains why Rules Don't Apply is officially, curiously billed as running two hours and thirty-eight minutes in length, yet in actuality only runs for about two - Beatty and his editors, no doubt, were taking a chainsaw to this thing at the 11-'o-clock hour.
The remaining hour and half of the film is largely dominated by Beatty's Hughes, who at this point in his life was a notorious recluse, clearly plagued by mental illness and in very hot water with the U.S. government. Beatty's performance is a true roller coaster ride - while I don't think his Hughes is quite as compelling as Leonardo DiCaprio's in The Aviator or Jason Robards' in Melvin and Howard, it's still an awfully convincing portrayal and his energy keeps the film from ever dozing off in his scenes. Beatty hits so many notes here, both tragic and funny, and has terrific chemistry with his leads.
While Beatty's performance is a memorable one for sure, however, his writing and directing are, I'm afraid, haphazard and unfocused. Yes, Rules Don't Apply looks fantastic - how could it not with the likes of Caleb Deschanel taking on the cinematography and Albert Wolsky designing the costumes - and the central trio of actors are terrific but these great things, all too much of the time, feel lost at sea in a choppily edited and convoluted endeavor.
Fans of the filmmaker need to see this. It is, after all, the rarest of occasions when we get a new Warren Beatty flick. And I'm certainly hopeful he goes on to write, direct, produce and star in more feature films - don't allow the disappointing reviews and box office receipts deter you! But yes, Rules Don't Apply, while sporting several worthwhile things, does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity.