Beatty's Hughes looms over nostalgic, ambiguous 'Rules Don't Apply'

Posted November 24, 2016

“RULES DON'T APPLY” — 3 stars — Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Haley Bennett, Taissa Farmiga, Warren Beatty; PG-13 (sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements and drug references); in general release

Maybe it’s appropriate that a film with a title like “Rules Don’t Apply” is so difficult to pin down. It feels like a period piece, a biopic, a romance, even a comedy, yet none of those terms feels like a suitable description for Warren Beatty’s directorial effort.

It’s also a reflection of “Café Society,” Woody Allen’s winking look at Old Hollywood from earlier this year. “Rules Don’t Apply” is essentially a love story set against 1960s Hollywood, and it’s just quirky enough to let its audience decide what the whole thing is saying.

The film begins with a young actress named Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) who has just arrived in Hollywood to do a screen test for an upcoming film financed by Howard Hughes (Beatty). Hughes puts Marla and her mother (Annette Bening) up in a gorgeous home in the hills and assigns them a personal driver, Frank (Alden Ehrenreich). But after weeks go by without contact, Marla eventually realizes that Hughes has dozens of such actresses on hand. Even Frank admits that in months of employment, he has never met Hughes in person.

With nothing better to do, Marla and Frank have no choice but to flirt with Hughes’ unspoken rule, which is that there is to be no flirting between his actresses and his employees. Marla and Frank’s devout Christianity helps them to avoid taking things too far, but their time in Hollywood gradually wears on their convictions, and when the couple-to-be are finally welcomed into Hughes’ circle, a bizarre love triangle results.

Yet the romance between Marla and Frank is only one element of “Rules Don’t Apply,” and it takes a quick back seat to Beatty’s performance once Hughes becomes an active presence in the storyline. Hughes is dealing with various problems of his own, including a major airline deal that is contingent on the billionaire disproving rumors about his frail sanity.

Of course, the audience is kept as much in the dark on that matter as Hughes’ investors, as “Rules Don’t Apply” cheerfully directs us through a number of quirky Hughes vignettes that waver somewhere between charm and genuine mental illness. It’s a fantastic performance from Beatty, whose long experience in Hollywood legend no doubt enhances his on-screen presence.

But even if the parts don’t quite add up to a definitive whole, there are individual moments that ring out of the film. Marla is also a songwriter, and the song she plays on the piano for Hughes and Frank, which provides the title for the film, is an emotional highlight, evocative of an era that put on a classic face even if its underbelly wasn’t quite as clean.

The song is inspired by a conversation between Marla and Frank early on, where she laments that she lacks some of the superficial elements that always seem to win out in places like Hollywood. Frank insists that the rules don’t apply to her, and the same message seems to fit the looming, larger-than-life personality pulling all the strings in their lives.

As a portrait of an era that Beatty lived and worked through, “Rules Don’t Apply” has a poetic charm, even if its final takeaway feels a bit more ambiguous.

“Rules Don't Apply” is rated PG-13 for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements and drug references; running time: 126 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at


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