Set mostly in 1958, the film follows Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a driver working for eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (Beatty). Frank has aspirations of becoming a successful land developer and businessman. Frank’s job for Hughes, though, is to drive around the many aspiring starlets Hughes has under contract at his RKO Pictures. The only rule the drivers must adhere to? No hanky-panky with the actresses. Things get complicated for Frank when he begins driving Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a very religious songwriter and beauty queen who is looking to become an actress. The two struggle with their feelings in the face of the rules imposed upon them as well as the social mores of the day. Frank has a fiancée back home, Sarah (Taissa Farmiga), and while they aren’t legally married yet, they have slept together. For Sarah and the deeply religious Marla, the two are essentially the same thing. While all this is going on, the film documents Hughes’ growing mania and paranoia.
That last sentence is the main problem with Rules Don’t Apply. The film starts out as a nice – if not disjointed – period piece romantic comedy, but slowly, it becomes all about Beatty’s Hughes and the two young lovers are shunted to the side, or at least their relationship is. So, it felt like Beatty, who also wrote the screenplay, wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted this movie to be about. Either that or he was so enamored of his own performance, he decided to double down on it. The problem is, the film doesn’t work as a movie about Howard Hughes, because although he comes to dominate the story, he’s never really presented to the audience as the main character. It would have worked much better if Hughes had been on the periphery, meddling in Frank and Marla’s lives. So, the story is an absolute mess and aside from a general demarcation at the start of the film, we’re never totally sure of just how much time is passing from scene to scene – the entire film is told over about five and a half years. Part of the reason for the story being a mess is due to the absolutely atrocious editing. It’s hard to tell if the four credited editors saved the film or made it worse, because there is definitely a feeling that Beatty shot, like, six hours of footage and the editors had to cram it all into two hours. The film jumps all over the place – some scenes are literally ten seconds long – and it’s completely discombobulating. Also, because of the competing storylines, the tone is never consistent, which makes for an uneven film in the best circumstances, but in a mess like this, it’s maddening.
The cast does all right with what they’re given. It’s hard to blame them for any issues when the rest of the film is such a disaster. Ehrenreich is a good leading man, which will serve him well as he takes on the role of Young Han Solo for Disney and Lucasfilm. Collins is also very good as Marla, but even though she’s supposed to be one of the leads in this film, she is given surprisingly little to do in this film. She vanishes as the plot shifts to focus more on Frank and Hughes’ business relationship. Beatty is also fine as Hughes, but it’s clear that this is 100% a vanity project for him. Matthew Broderick is good as Frank’s friend and co-worker, Levar, while Annette Benning puts in a nice performance as Marla’s hovering mother. Candice Bergen also shows up as Hughes’s longtime assistant and Martin Sheen plays a key advisor. However, the problems with this film do not stem from the cast.
Overall, it’s clear that the rules should have applied to Rules Don’t Apply. This film is clearly a vanity project of Beatty’s that he couldn’t let go of and the result was a film that has some nice moments, but is mostly infuriating. It squanders the talents of the actors involved and, for me, was an absolute mess. Steer very clear of this one.