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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016 12:04 am

Beatty out of step with Rules

Lily Collins as Marla Mabrey in Rules Don’t Apply.


I’m often asked if I have any favorite filmmakers or actors, and if I do, if I go easy on them in the reviews I write of their work. Personally, the opposite is true – if anything, I’m harder on them because my expectations for their work are higher. So, perhaps my hopes for Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply were greater than they should have been, though I suspect there’s no perspective from which to approach this film so that it might be seen in a positive light. The actor’s first film in 15 years, Rules is an unruly mess from the start, a disjointed tale that’s never allowed to come to fruition that ultimately wastes fine performances from its three principals as well as its potential to deliver a pointed cautionary tale.

The time is 1958; the place is Hollywood, the end of the studio era in which the industry finds itself struggling with that upstart invention the television, as well as its own identity. However, Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) is oblivious to all of this; having been signed to an exclusive contract to Howard Hughes (Beatty) at RKO Pictures and with stars in her eyes, she’s convinced she’ll conquer Tinseltown. With her strict Baptist mother in tow (a wasted Annette Bening), the young woman and her chaperone are driven around town by Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a young man who’s taken this job in the hopes of getting close enough to Hughes in order to get him to invest in a subdivision of affordable housing he hopes to develop. But once Mabrey and Forbes lay eyes on one another, their main focus becomes each other; they can’t deny their mutual attraction, despite that fact that they will both surely be fired if Hughes catches wind of it.

Coupled with this developing love affair is a parallel plot in which Hughes is forced to prove his sanity, as he fears being found incapable of handling his affairs and having all of his assets seized. This is an intriguing aspect of the tycoon’s life that is not developed fully here, leading to a degree of frustration as this is potentially far more interesting than a standard love story. Beatty gives this aspect, as well as himself, short shrift in not focusing on this, instead casting Hughes as more buffoon than eccentric. His attempted seduction of Mabrey is awkward and unconvincing, while an errant plane ride in which the former aviator sets out to prove he still has the right stuff serves no purpose and fails to leave the ground comically.

Be that as it may, Beatty delivers a poignant performance as Hughes, a role he’s wanted to tackle for over 40 years. A quiet scene in which the billionaire and Forbes discuss the future and pay a late night visit to the Spruce Goose proves touching, as do moments, particularly during the movie’s final minutes, in which we see him struggling with the madness that would haunt him.

The film’s biggest flaw is its editing. Inexplicably, Beatty employed four different cutters to work on this project, and the result is a mess of conflicting rhythms. Scenes are cut away from too quickly and aren’t allowed to develop or settle with the audience, giving the movie a frantic sense of pacing when it doesn’t need one. The choppy effect makes for an erratic, scattered feeling that prevents us from getting to know or care about the players and helps render a late narrative surprise more unbelievable than it already is.

Collins and Ehrenreich bring freshness to the screen, and they no doubt have better films in their future. The same may not be the case for Beatty. At 78 years old and a notoriously deliberate filmmaker, chances are good that Rules Don’t Apply may prove to be his swan song, a regrettable end to one of the most progressive and intriguing careers in Hollywood history. Beatty has always succeeded by adhering to the notion that the rules don’t apply to him; however, having not directed a feature in 18 years, he seems to have lost his touch, having delivered a deeply personal but obviously flawed piece of work.

For a review of Moana, go the Cinemascoping blog at http://illinoistimes.com.

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