Tuesday 30 May 2017

Review by Robert Richardson of “Rules Don’t Apply” (2016, film, directed by Warren Beatty)

Rules Don’t Apply is Warren Beatty’s first film as a director for eighteen years and as an actor for fifteen, and has the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, played by Beatty, at its centre. It is also a song within the film, actually composed by Eddie Arkin and Lorraine Feather, but for the purposes of the plot it is written and sung by Marla Mabrey, played by Lily Collins. The song applies as much to her as Hughes, the maverick who, despite his wealth and power, is shown too behaviourally odd for the template of corporate America. Similarly, Marla, a writer of songs rather than a singer, does not fit in with the expectations of Hollywood, where she has arrived with her mother (Annette Bening) from Virginia, as a contract actress, one of many, for Hughes’s film studio. Back home she had won a beauty contest, but a demure one since both mother and daughter are devout Baptists. Beatty, who also wrote the script, sets the film in the late 1950s/early 1960s and captures the church-going conservatism of Eisenhower era America. Eventually, the mother becomes tired of failing to have any meetings with Hughes, the promises of screen tests that never take place, and the general vacuity of Hollywood. She returns to Virginia, leaving her daughter with warnings of Hughes’s notoriety for bedding his contract actresses.
Frank Forbes  (Aiden Ehrenreich), the driver assigned by the studio to Marla, soon falls for her, and she for him, but they are both restrained not only by their religious backgrounds, Frank is a Methodist, but also by regulations imposed by Hughes. After Marla finally gets to meet Hughes, a triangle of sorts emerges, although this is not realised by Frank until the end of the film.
Marla does loosen up, but only as brief lapses from her Baptist upbringing. There is no trajectory into promiscuity or alcoholism. This is after all a romantic comedy, and Beatty successfully maintains a genial tone. In a similar vein, Frank’s personality becomes a little more steely when he is promoted from driver to one of Hughes’s close aides, but he retains his essential humanity.
Beatty obviously relished the role of Hughes and has great fun playing him, and this communicates to the audience, which is not a bad thing for a comedy to do. Hughes’s eccentricities were many, and Beatty plunders this fund for our entertainment: e.g. the obsession with TV dinners, burgers and banana nut ice cream; the repeated private viewings of Hell’s Angels, the World War One flying film he produced and co-directed in 1930; the ludicrous use of doubles  (Hughes employed more than one to fool the press and others). A more tragic side to Hughes, his addiction to codeine, is only mentioned in passing.
If ever there was a life open to fiction it was Hughes. In a way, he seems like a character from an American comic: supporting the conventional money making values of America, while paradoxically defined by strangeness and deviance. Currently, another ego-driven billionaire businessman is strutting the planet as US President. I think it is preferable when, like Hughes, they hide away.
Through this film, Beatty has created an opportunity for an impressive ensemble performance, which includes Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen and Steve Coogan. As well as the pay cheque, I think there was probably the motivation of working with Beatty and contribute to his welcome return to filmmaking,
About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). Two of his publishing projects were recently represented at a festival in Rome, and he is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

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