Warren Beatty returns with shallow, charming “Rules Don’t Apply”

Justin Jones

Though many films seek to inform, critique or transform their audience, others simply entertain. “Rules Don’t Apply,” Warren Beatty’s first film in 18 years, is the latter­­­ — a fun yet shallow piece of escapism.

Beatty’s extended absence made moviegoers await his return with anticipation, and while the Oscar-winner made his comeback with strong effort, viewers cannot help but wish it were less superficial.

Beatty told The Independent he has wanted to document the story of billionaire Howard Hughes on the big screen since 1973. Though many troubles delayed the making of the film, most notably Martin Scorsese’s epic 2004 biopic of Hughes, Beatty waited and waited until his film could get made.

“Rules Don’t Apply” depicts an aged Hughes, with Beatty himself playing an old and paranoid version of the billionaire. He shares screentime with two actors less than half his age, Lily Collins and future-Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich, who play Marla Mabrey, a young actress, and Frank Forbes, her chauffeur. The two form an odd and sometimes icky love triangle with their employer, Hughes, as shenanigans unfold.

The film opens with a focus on Mabrey and Forbes, with Beatty staying offscreen for the first 20 minutes, building anticipation in a fashion similar to Spielberg’s decision to delay showing the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park.” Luckily, Collins and Ehrenreich have great chemistry and surprising comedic chops. The two banter, trip and perform exactly what one would expect from a screwball comedy.

By the time Hughes arrives, the constant discussion about him leads the audience to expect the very opposite of what Beatty portrays: a once-brilliant old man who is no longer fully mentally present. His screen presence is immense, yet the viewer cannot help but pity him. He is always accompanied by a personal assistant, a constantly flustered Matthew Broderick, who attempts to help Hughes despite odd demands and contradictory requests, such as buying a company’s entire supply of banana nut ice cream.

The film shines when more of these characters are on-screen; their interplay is the fuel that drives the film. The bounces between Beatty’s barking commands, Broderick’s devotion, Ehrenreich’s charm and Collins’ ambition consistently amuse, leading to an unanticipated emotional climax. 

The look of “Rules Don’t Apply” is very different from most modern films. It frequently features static shots with a very deep focus, intentionally leading to frames so cluttered with information the viewer may not know what to look at. Editing plays a large role as well, with quick cuts to different angles and reactions creating an interesting if odd aesthetic.

Unfortunately, “Rules Don’t Apply” stays surface-level over its two hours. The plot is shallow and the film settles for eye-catching style over true substance, skirting over potential commentary on the nature of religion, parenthood and insanity in favor of another joke.

Rules Don’t Apply
Runtime: 126 minutes
Score: 4/5