Wednesday, November 30, 2016

In Theaters: RULES DON'T APPLY (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Warren Beatty. Cast: Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Haley Bennett, Candice Bergen, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Ed Harris, Megan Hilty, Oliver Platt, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, Taissa Farmiga, Amy Madigan, Paul Schneider, Hart Bochner, Louise Linton, Graham Beckel, Chace Crawford, Ashley Hamilton, Marshall Bell, Patrick Fischler, Michael Badalucco, Joe Cortese. (PG-13, 126 mins)

As an actor, writer, director, and producer, Warren Beatty has been nominated for 14 Oscars in total, winning one for Best Director with 1981's REDS. He's a living legend, and as a producer and star, one who was instrumental in ushering in the "New Hollywood" era with 1967's landmark BONNIE AND CLYDE. Beatty was never prolific even in his heyday: starting with his big-screen debut in 1961's SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, he's acted in just 22 films in 55 years, the bulk of those being in the 1960s and 1970s. Offscreen since the expensive 2001 bomb TOWN & COUNTRY, Beatty returns with RULES DON'T APPLY, a pet project about Howard Hughes that he's had in various stages of development since 1973. Beatty also wrote and directed, and the whole thing was kept under wraps as shooting began in early 2014. Granted a Kubrickian level of freedom and secrecy that very few are afforded these days, Beatty made exactly the film he wanted to make, and if the end result is what he's had playing in his head for over 40 years, then you have to wonder what he was thinking and why he even bothered.

Set from 1959 to 1964, RULES DON'T APPLY takes its time getting to Beatty's Howard Hughes (79-year-old Beatty is about 25 years too old to play Hughes in this time period), instead focusing on Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins, daughter of Phil), a virginal, small-town beauty queen and bright-eyed songwriter from Virginia, who's been given a studio contract by Hughes and is flown out to Hollywood with her overprotective, devout Baptist mother Lucy (Annette Bening). They're picked up at the airport by Hughes employee Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a Methodist engaged to 7th grade sweetheart Sarah (Taissa Farmiga) back in Fresno and with big dreams about getting Hughes to back his real estate ventures. Hughes has over 25 starlets under contract, and despite stipulations that the drivers aren't to get involved with them, Lucy and Frank can't deny their attraction to one another, even though she feels he's essentially married since he's already had sex with Sarah.

So far, so good. The opening half hour of RULES DON'T APPLY isn't great, but it has a sort-of "second-tier Woody Allen" thing going on and plays a lot like Allen's similar CAFE SOCIETY from earlier this year. But once Hughes enters the picture, the focus shifts to Beatty going through the litany of every Hughes tic, compulsion, oddity, and stereotype in existence. Sometimes it's played for laughs, other times it turns strangely dark, such as an uncomfortable and frankly creepy scene where a drunk Marla gives her virginity to a befuddled, babbling Hughes. Very little in this story is based on fact, other than there was a Howard Hughes and he was a total weirdo billionaire, so it's a jarring tonal shift to have what was essentially a light, romantic comedy suddenly turn bleak, with Marla feeling used and ending up pregnant and considering an abortion. Frank can't decide if he wants to be with Sarah or Marla, and for the sake of the script, instead gets a quick promotion from anonymous driver to Hughes' right-hand man almost overnight. Beatty then spends an inordinate amount of time on Hughes' dealings with his TWA airline, various defense contracts with the US government, and trying to convince the government that his plane can fly, with his behavior growing increasingly erratic with each passing scene. Many big names joined the project, obviously for the chance to work with Beatty, but with the exception of Matthew Broderick as another top Hughes flunky, none of them are put to good use: Candice Bergen has a thankless role as Hughes' secretary; Martin Sheen has three or four brief appearances before we even get a hint of who he's supposed to be (he's either Hughes' lawyer or he runs the day-to-day operations of the Hughes empire), then his character is fired and replaced by another character played by Alec Baldwin, doing a quick "Hey, I'm here to hang with Warren" drop-by; Ed Harris and Amy Madigan have one scene as Sarah's parents; Steve Coogan plays a scared pilot riding shotgun after Hughes drops what he's doing and goes to London to fly a plane; Dabney Coleman shows up briefly as Hughes' doctor; and in a barely-there bit part, Paul Sorvino is seen chatting in the background of a couple shots, eventually getting one line of dialogue when his character is seen on a TV screen. Who is he? Why is he here? Who knows?

It's never a good sign when four editors share credit, and RULES DON'T APPLY looks like a hastily-assembled mess that wasn't so much finished as it was given up on. Characters appear and disappear with no explanation, and early scenes are presented in such a brisk and choppy fashion that you never ascertain who certain people are and what purpose they serve to the story. Beatty bum-rushes through the exposition to get to the parts he cares most about--hamming it up as Howard Hughes--and leaves a large cast mostly stranded. It just gets worse as it goes on, Hughes impulsively heading to London, Managua, and Acapulco, with Frank in tow, for reasons never really explained. Beatty assembled some cast and crew for some reshoots in early 2015 and then spent well over a year putting the movie together. He had nearly five decades to figure out what he wanted with this thing and the end result is a leaden, lifeless, self-indulgent fiasco. Collins and Ehrenreich do what they can with the material (and you have to respect future Han Solo Ehrenreich, who arrived a few years ago as an obvious Leonardo DiCaprio clone who's now getting the roles Leo has aged out of, but he's a young actor who knows his history and has jumped at the chance to work with movie legends like Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen), but they're completely defeated by the whims and indecisiveness of a director who's just maybe been away from the game for too long. Beatty hasn't directed a film since 1998's still-scathing BULWORTH (though he reportedly pulled rank on Peter Chelsom and backseat-directed most of TOWN & COUNTRY himself), and that was a movie that had things to say that remain relevant today. Whether as a director, producer, writer, or star, Beatty has historically had his finger on the pulse of current events and deftly capturing the zeitgeist, whether it's the political commentary and the hip-hop awakening of BULWORTH, the changing cinema trends exemplified by BONNIE AND CLYDE, the post-Nixon/Watergate paranoia of THE PARALLAX VIEW, or the sexually liberated '70s in SHAMPOO. RULES DON'T APPLY (you could make a drinking game out of how many times that phrase is shoehorned in via dialogue or song) is a tone-deaf vanity project that puts Beatty in with other influential auteurs--Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick, George Romero, Dario Argento, to name a few--whose final or most recent works are indicative of aging legends who just don't get out much anymore. How else do you explain an extended gag about a cum stain on Frank's pants? Did Beatty just now get around to seeing a Farrelly Brothers comedy? And why is that joke in this movie? Given his sporadic work habits and his age, this is likely the last thing we're going to see from Warren Beatty. And that's a damn shame.

1 comment:

  1. Will have to see it out of curiosity eventually; from the review, I can't help but see some parallels with where Charlie Chaplin was a half-century ago. He was 78 when he did A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG, which was Chaplin's first film in 10 years and ended up being his last. He attracted big names to it (Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren) who no doubt wanted to work with a legend. The film was panned and many felt Chaplin was way out of touch in 1967. One big difference: Chaplin limited his on-screen appearance to a mere cameo.