Rules Don’t Apply (2016): The most romantic movie to ever come from a terrible script
I’m about to write a sentence that I (and most of you) would have never imagined that I would write:
I think Rules Don’t Apply is a good movie… because it reminds me of The Room.
This is gonna be another article where I have to explain my thought process in some detail, so bear with me.
The Room is a tremendously flawed film on almost every level, but you must admit that there’s something there that keeps bringing people back to it. I’ve watched it ten times, and nobody does something ten times ironically. If I had to put my finger on it, I would say that buried under the sputtered, half-mangled dialogue and haphazard plotting, there’s a vein of pure emotion that you just don’t see a lot of in modern movies. The Room reads like it was written by a seventh grader who’s just experienced his first break-up (in this scenario, let’s assume this seventh grader is from Lichtenstein or someplace). It’s raw, unpolished, and hopelessly immature, but there’s a certain primal understanding of emotion that, while uncomfortable to watch, nevertheless resonates.
With The Room, this was, of course, completely unintentional, but with Rules Don’t Apply, I don’t know if it was.
Warren Beatty, legendary director of many well-regarded films that you’ve always meant to watch but never got around to, is at this point in his (suddenly active) career an untouchable giant. This is to the film’s benefit, because otherwise the script (co-written by Beatty, who also produced, directed, and has a supporting role) would never have gotten made. Hell, were I an English teacher, I probably would have given it an F for not following the guidelines of the assignment.
Before we get into too many details, Rules Don’t Apply is a love story about two attractive young people (Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins) who work for Howard Hughes (played by Beatty). This seems to have been the entire hook for the marketing, but in reality this setup is abandoned about halfway through the second of what must be five or six acts. Frank, a chauffeur tasked with driving around aspiring actress Marla, instantly falls for her cute-as-a-button charms and the fact that the two of them seem to be the only devoutly religious people in Los Angeles, though they belong to different churches. Frank has a fiancé that he’s already slept with, meaning that they’re technically already married (I’m guessing they belong to the same church as Jimmy Carter). Marla, meanwhile, is the type of character most people assume Sandy from Grease was: a virgin who’s never touched alcohol… who’s also a strong, independent young woman who turned down a college scholarship to give this Hollywood thing a try.
So far, so simple, right?
Well, Hughes’ insanely detailed rules about how his employees must comport themselves precludes them from becoming involved with each other, so there’s that, but there’s also the spiritual conflict that the two of them share over whether it would be morally right to pursue a relationship at all.
I’ll give the film credit for treating the faith angle seriously, at least early on in the film. I was starting to get confused about why Beatty would want to jump on the mainstream Christian movie bandwagon once that horse had already been led behind the barn and shot, but at least their dilemma is presented as an actual obstacle, rather than a single conversation between them followed by sex.
Also, in keeping with the spiritual theme, one gets the impression that the Hughes Company is some type of cult, since Marla and Frank talk about very little besides how great Hughes is.
This also ties in with the fact that Frank only became a chauffeur as a back-door way to get Hughes to invest in a land deal. This ambition gets Hughes to take him on as a protégé, allowing him to act as a sort of counsel during the US Senate hearings on the infamous crash of the Spruce Goose, Hughes’ seclusion, and ultimately the Clifford Irving hoax (all of which have been condensed to about five years in the late 50’s/early 60’s).
Meanwhile, Howard Hughes is rightly concerned that people might think he’s gone crazy. So, since his organization can’t have him committed if his spouse won’t sign the papers, he takes advantage of a drunk Marla, only to run off to Las Vegas and marry someone else.
This leads to a subplot you might recognize if you saw Dreamgirls: Marla gets pregnant, ruins all of her relationships by being angry and evasive even though she could literally fix most of her problems just by telling people she’s pregnant, then reappears years later with a toddler in tow, and everything just kind of works out.
The dramatic heft of the film largely comes from our two lovebirds compromising their principles in some way, be it getting sucked into Hughes’s web of insanity or forsaking the moral lessons of the church. The story meanders in about a hundred different directions, but this can actually be a plus if you’re in the mood for a love story that’s murky and complicated and has all the same stops and starts as in real life.
The script feels like it was Frankensteined together from about seventeen different drafts (or was edited together from a much longer miniseries, like Yor, the Hunter from the Future), and if you’re a history nut like me, the anachronisms will drive you bonkers. But by being in a position where no one wanted to tell him no, Beatty has stumbled into a story with real heart.
If I had to draw a direct comparison, I’d call it the movie equivalent of a song-poem: amateurishly written, slapped together by dispassionate studio hacks, but competently performed and undeniably unique. Shame no one but me will ever see it.
Oh, and speaking of songs, there’s a ditty in this film (probably where the title comes from, actually) that I really hope wins an Oscar! So, there’s that.