Popcorn: “Rules Don’t Apply”

The Politics of Entitlement

2 & ½ popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

Maybe it’s because I’ve recently had my fill of bragging billionaires that I was slow to build interest in director-writer-actor Warren Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply.” The partially fantasized biographical sketch about the much mythologized Howard Hughes also starts off sluggishly and is a mite jagged. It isn’t until about the midpoint, when Mr. Beatty’s eccentric caricature begins to gel, that the mélange of loony and philosophical almost compensates for what then, alas, devolves into a run of the mill romance.


In the opening scene we are welcomed into the opulently celebrated tarnish that is Hollywood just before the death knell sounds on the studio system. A dozen years after the conclusion of WWII, America is flexing its financial muscle, and nowhere is that arrogance exhibited more lavishly than in Tinsel Town. Arriving to seek fame and fortune is Lily Collins’s small town beauty queen, Marla Mabrey, one of innumerable contract players picked to join the movie mogul’s stable of hopefuls. Her mother, Lucy (Annette Bening), is in tow to chaperone.


But where is Mr. Hughes? Will our would-be ingénue ever meet him, let alone finally be called for a screen test? Just the tycoon’s fabled reputation and mystique, hinted at in rumors that only enhance the wished for prize, is available to the pulchritudinous ladies he has plucked from city and hinterland. When Marla beseeches Frank Forbes, the chauffeur/unofficial emissary assigned to her, for info, he sheepishly admits that he has never met the Big Guy, and is her analogous counterpart…one of but many young men hoping to gain a toehold in the Hughes organization.


Frank, essentially the Pip to Marla’s Estella, has great expectations for a piece of land up on Mullholland that might be developed for middle income housing, if he can sell the idea to the mystery man…if and when he ever meets him. But now, added to the ambitious fellow’s plans is the wooing of his charge, which is clearly verboten in his contract. Conversely, if Marla is really interested in her admirer, played by Alden Ehrenreich, you wouldn’t know it. Besides, as she oft reminds in the flirtatious dialogue that ensues, he’s engaged to his seventh grade sweetheart.


Beatty uses this scenario to posit some points, both serious and humorous, about repressed sexuality and its attendant, naughty hypocrisy in the post McCarthy era. While that comes across more curious and camp than profound, the period-proper fashions and cars do at least create a visual genuineness. All starch and doylies, Ms. Bening’s mother hen, as counterpoint to the storied Lothario her real-life husband plays, successfully sets the story’s moral compass.


The question is, how much Hughes do we need? Leonardo DiCaprio nailed the biography in “The Aviator” (2004), replete with quirks, phobias and the much popularized bizarreness. You know…the whole genius-nuttiness connection. It’s a curious sort of syllogism some people like to personalize: i.e.–‘Howard Hughes was great, but bizarre. I’m kind of bizarre. So I’m great, too.’ Well, maybe you are, Jack.


At worst this is a mostly harmless, self-deluding sort of identification, and not the far-flung type that props up autocrats. All of which makes us wonder about Beatty’s goal. Aside from drolly showing that his acting chops are intact, the progressive humanism that has long been the hallmark of his career is also doubtlessly served in the form of a cautionary metaphor about a relatively recent, historical phenomenon: the billionaire as self-asserting commentator, pundit, oracle and yes, even politician. As Tevye said, “When you’re rich they really think you know.”


While Beatty adds no new facts, he enjoys romancing the Hughes myth. But the love story he employs as the chassis upon which to build his cynical thesis about wealth and power isn’t very interesting, at least not beyond its mini anthropological dissection of mores in the 1950s. Still, there’s no discounting the vicarious enjoyment Mr. Beatty’s depiction lends itself to…the brief fantasy it affords. For a scant few minutes in the dark, surely even the most sober realists will allow themselves a little of, ‘Boy, if I had that kind of money, well, I’d, I’d, well…I’d.’


Although far less inspiring than Beatty’s performance, Miss Collins’s well-scrubbed, wannabe starlet is at once witty, wise, canny and assumedly innocent, in an Audrey Hepburn sort of way. And Mr. Ehrenreich, who I’d bet has trod the boards in his share of “West Side Story” productions, also looks like he bathes regularly. But it’s all secondary to liberal icon Beatty’s idealism and what I suggest is his way of warning citizens outside the choir about rich folks who feel the “Rules Don’t Apply” to them.

“Rules Don’t Apply,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox release directed by Warren Beatty and stars Warren Beatty, Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich. Running time: 126 minutes