Rules Don’t Apply: Inspired Vanity, by Scott Nye
Howard Hughes suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder that alternately paralyzed and accelerated his productive capabilities as one of the world’s most successful businessmen, and due to his wealth, a great many people worked very hard to maintain his status. Warren Beatty’s new film, his first in nearly twenty years, is about some of those people. Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins star as a driver and aspiring actress who find the difficulties associated with Hughes (Beatty) might not be worth the potential wealth partnership with him might grant them, along the way navigating the tricky sexual mores of the 1950s and scrambling to keep up with their unpredictable boss. Rules Don’t Apply is one of the most chaotic, erratic films I’ve seen this year, veering wildly in tone and rhythm, and seems to completely capture the nonsensical nature of life with Howard Hughes when he was most unstoppable.
Like Frank (Ehrenreich) and Marla (Collins), we don’t even meet Hughes until quite awhile into the film; when we do it is brief, and in a very dark room. Beatty has a hammy sort of streak in him that finds beautiful purchase in the gregarious Hughes, but his willingness to undercut that boisterous nature with Hughes’ apparent desire to often meet people in total darkness gives his performance an unusual edge. Far from adding to Hughes’ mystique, it reduces him, makes him seem shy and fearful and untrusting. After a half-hour or so of characters exalting his achievements and desperately trying to secure meetings, he’s just a man eating a plain dinner awkwardly in a dark room. This is important context for what follows, where he often tries to be the Howard Hughes the world sees, and inevitably falls short.
Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004) leaned heavily into Hughes’ mental illness as a tragedy, which of course it is when you’re looking at the story from his point of view. Beatty, however, in situating the story outside of Hughes’ perspective, suggests the tragedy more often than he dwells in it. For Frank and Marla and his other employees, his OCD was sometimes seen as an extension of his genius, or often just a frustrating personality flaw that made it difficult to keep up with him. They didn’t really know how deep the spiral went on his long nights alone; they just knew he had to have his food made specifically and his schedule arranged specifically and a thousand other inexplicable demands that coming from anyone other than a billionaire would be intolerable and unsustainable. But because he can afford to pay their salaries without drawing much money and give them a shot at their own wealth and success, they find little room to complain.
Ehrenreich navigates this uncertainty beautifully, able to dance between the romantic longing he feels for Marla, the frustration and awe he has for Hughes, the comedic beats and dramatic pauses in Beatty’s screenplay without really missing a step. He’s among the most nimble and romantic figures of his generation. Despite having only one star vehicle to date – Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro, which almost nobody saw – he walks onscreen here fully formed, as confident and charismatic a performer as a young Montgomery Clift. Frank is filled with doubts about his engagement (to his seventh-grade sweetheart; they are now in their twenties) and his ability to spin a driving job with Hughes into a real estate investment; Ehrenreich never cedes an inch to Beatty. Even when playing Frank’s discomfort, he’s as captivating as his legendary costar.
In addition to directing and starring in the damn thing, Beatty wrote the screenplay, having been toying with the project since the 1970s. The chaotic structure I mentioned at the top may be as much due to trying to cram in every insane Howard Hughes anecdote he could into two hours – flow be damned – but the effect is stirring. Some scenes last for a couple seconds, others go on for upwards of ten minutes, twisting and turning and developing in odd ways. Going back to 1975’s Shampoo, his first screenplay credit, he’s had a great taste for odd dialogue rhythms that overlap and counter each other and hone in on strange expressions. This finds fruition in immediate exchanges, the structure of scenes (Hughes and Marla’s drunken seduction, frequently interrupted by nosy bankers, is spectacular), and the structure of the film. It loosely hangs its hat on the idea of a Frank/Marla romance, but their one moment of romance is so fumbled and awkward and ill-executed that it’s more about the mounting frustrations of a sexually-repressed social scene than it is a proper courtship. Beatty retains his insight for this sort of thing, an insistence that sex is the true driver of most of our actions. One needn’t agree with him to be amused watching him explore the notion.
The film may be less “masterful” than Oscar-hungry pundits might expect from someone as legendary as Beatty, but it’s better than masterful – it’s personal. Richard Brody has written extensively about how great directors, as they age, bother less and less with plot and continuity to tap more directly into what inspires them. Beatty is very much chasing the pure shit here. Again, this presents a less uniform, considered film, but one that is as wholly unpredictable as its subject. Since Beatty is able to gather a cast that includes Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Annette Bening, Haley Bennett, Candice Bergen, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Ed Marris, Oliver Platt, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, and more, spin them around, and cut them loose, Rules Don’t Apply is the rarest of creations in this modern world devoid of nonsense – inspired vanity.