Rules Don’t Apply is going to go down as one of the most fascinating films of the year, and not because it is an especially good one. Writer, director, producer, and star Warren Beatty has been around for a while and has demonstrated his chops as a talented figure in Hollywood, but what he has put together here is a bizarre chimera that is equal parts unironic egomania and self-deprecating comedy. The film is not good, but it has a bizarre way of endearing itself through the sheer lunacy of its comic beats that serve better as a look into the mind of its madman auteur than as a form of self-serious entertainment.
Ostensibly, Rules Don’t Apply is a historical, romantic farce about the troubled romance between an retained actress (Lily Collins) and the driver charged with transporting her around Los Angeles (Alden Ehrenreich). Both are in the employ of Howard Hughes (Beatty), an eccentric billionaire who is rarely seen and has extensive and explicit rules for how his employees are supposed to behave. This includes forbidding romance between the drivers and the actresses, so as the two conventionally attractive leads struggle against their Christian values of pre-marital celibacy, they must also keep in mind that Mr. Hughes is always watching.
However, despite the two leads functioning as the point-of-view characters having the most developed arcs of any onscreen presence, to call them the focus of the film is woefully misleading. They essentially serve as personality-less avatars, good Christians who are supposedly immediately relatable in their averageness and primarily function as reactionaries to the weirdness that happens around them. Collins and Ehrenreich aren’t without their charms as actors, and Collins in particular really sells the frustrated, struggling actress shtick—due to personal experience?—but their narrative presence only seems to justify this film as more than Warren Beatty’s version of The Aviator.
The real star of the film is Beatty’s portrayal of Hughes, which veers wildly between sympathetically broken to broad farce. Beatty chews the scenery with aplomb and delight, reveling in the madness of Howard Hughes without seeming to realize that Hughes’s unrestrained ego functions as a direct parallel to the uneven mechanisms of Beatty’s production. There are scenes with Hughes that are humorous and entertaining when taken individually, and there are moments of genuine compassion for a man struggling with extreme mental illness—but more often than not, Beatty seems content to just insert as much madcap antics as he can so that we as the audience are left with feelings of slack-jawed bewilderment. This is reflected not just in the performance, but some of the most frantic editing I have ever seen, with some scenes lasting no more than five seconds just so that footage wouldn’t be left on the cutting room floor.
If there’s one thing this film suffers from more than anything, it’s the Jack Sparrow Effect; its supporting character is more interesting and dynamic than its protagonists, so more screentime and resources are allocated to presenting that character, resulting in a weaker narrative thrust. Beatty complicates that by casting himself as the most interesting character and cannibalizing his own production to shine the spotlight on his own Hughesian hubris. Beatty has captured the delusional self-grandeur of Tommy Wiseau without stooping to his incompetence. If you see Rules Don’t Apply, don’t look at it as a movie, but as a look into the mind of a crazy old man.