Rules Don’t Apply
This certainly seems to be the year for movies about classic Hollywood. We started off just after the dump season with the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, and then there was Woody Allen’s Café Society over the summer, and we’re about to get Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, which has been getting plenty of buzz on the festival circuit. But right now we have Warren Beatty’s first time directing a feature in almost twenty years, Rules Don’t Apply, and it’s kind of a glorious mess. While nowhere near as tightly assembled as the Coens’ film, and not the joy to behold of Chazelle’s, it easily stands head and shoulders above Allen’s effort, distinguished mostly by the radical technique of having a point.
In essence, this is a romantic comedy between two young newcomers to late ’50s Hollywood. Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), the Apple Blossom Queen from Front Royal, Virginia, is the newest contract actress at RKO Pictures. Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is the driver who meets her and her mother (Annette Benning) at the airport, himself only in town two weeks. And both of them are under the employ of the reclusive and increasingly eccentric millionaire — I’m sorry, billionaire — Howard Hughes (Beatty).
This isn’t the dashing Leo DiCaprio from The Aviator, romancing Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale in turns, but keep that guy in mind. This is years down the line, when Hughes’ eccentricities — or is it dementia or insanity? — have come to dominate his life. Marla and Frank work in Hughes’ employ for weeks without seeing the man once. And when we do finally meet him, he’s a mass of awkward impulses, pulling in ten different directions at once, and off-putting in the extreme.
Critics have been complaining about the haphazard editing. It seems slapdash, or even amateurish, despite the talent Beatty deploys in the cutting room, including Leslie Jones and Billy Weber, each of whom has a list of solid credits as long as your arm. Far from an accident, this is a conscious choice that mirrors Hughes’ own mental state. Following the film as it caroms off one idea and into another is as frustrating as following Hughes himself.
So Marla attends classes preparing for a screen test that may never come, and Frank trades off driving duties with the older, more cynical Levar (Matthew Broderick) while studying economics, hoping to pitch Hughes on a housing development in Mulholland Canyon, and neither of them gets much closer to Hughes than his secretary, Nadine (Candace Bergen). And the two of them fall in love, even though they’re not supposed to.
But living in Hollywood and working for a man like Howard Hughes makes you think that anything is possible. You haven’t missed your chance to be a star on the silver screen, and you really can go from rags to riches in Los Angeles real estate. In short, the rules don’t apply to you. And that’s the delirious illusion that Howard Hughes creates: the dashing aviator, romancing movie stars, rich enough to move heaven and earth for his slightest whim. It’s easy to believe that this man is an exception to the rules that normally govern the lives of regular folks.
Which brings me to American exceptionalism, which is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but not always with a sense of what it really means. In common use, it sees America as a uniquely rich and powerful nation, full of glamour and movie stars and advanced technology; the last remaining superpower on the global stage. But in fact it refers to the idea that America is somehow “exceptional” — not bound by the same rules and forces of history that shape other nations. It’s an alluring idea, that by going along with this uniquely unconstrained power you too can get everything you want, regardless of the common wisdom.
But this attitude should be easily recognizable to anyone who’s observed a hyperactive teenager, enamored of his own sense of power and immortality, taking on one interest after another until none of them can get the attention they need. With every mounting distraction, this egoist grows more petty and insecure, obsessing over his public image, refusing to see anyone lest they see him in return. The only ones who get in are those whom he trusts not to recognize how truly frail he is, and how ultimately subject to the same rules as everyone else. Or, if they do recognize it, they’ll turn a blind eye because they think they too can profit by living inside his aura.
Rules Don’t Apply tells a story about the dizzying ride up, but also the lurching, stomach-churning descent when first one person, then another realizes that the rules actually do apply. You might become a movie star, but you probably won’t. You might strike it rich, but you probably won’t. And, as sweet as the siren song is, there’s a touch of faltering sadness behind it. If we’re honest, we knew it was an illusion all the time. It’s time for us to grow up.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.