- Beautiful costumes, set design, cinematography and archive footage – really bring out nostalgic beauty of era
- Solid, decent acting on the whole
- Weak script, story and structure – loses focus on characters and story, confuses genres and doesn’t allow the audience to engage with the characters
Advertised in trailers as a quirky rom-com with a nostalgic 1950/60s Hollywood backdrop, Rules Don’t Apply doesn’t quite meet this expectation. Instead, what we get is a mishmash of the biopic and romance genres, with an uneven, disjointed story structure and jokes that largely fall flat.
But let’s not start on a negative note. Personally I usually have a real penchant for films of this niche – films about films and filmmaking set in the past, in the golden era of moviemaking. So going in I was largely biased, determined to like it. And this backdrop, the nostalgic 1950/60s Hollywood setting, certainly was my favourite aspect and the strongest element of the film. The film itself looks marvellous; the set design, costume, cinematography and archive footage of the real places all contribute to a strong nostalgic look back to that era in the world. We travel from Hollywood to Acapulco to London and it all looks gorgeous and authentic, bringing the charm of the era to life and to the film. Sadly this is the best part of the film.
To be fair, the acting itself was also reasonably good. Lily Collins in particular was the highlight as adorable, very lovable Marla Mabrey; sweet and innocent, she’s instantly the character we feel drawn to and we’re happy to watch her as the lead part… at least initially – this seems to change half way through. Warren Beatty too is excellent as the insane billionaire Howard Hughes, bringing much needed humour and charisma to the film. Said humour is also doled out by Annette Bening as Marla’s mother – sadly we see too little of her as she leaves less than half an hour into the film. It’s as if Matthew Broderick was cast to replace her slightly comedic, charismatic character after her part was done, but his character is rarely given the chance to shine and be as charming as Ferris Beuller (sadly yes, for me he will always be compared to that), and is instead relegated to being a somewhat substandard version of Happy Hogan to Howard Hughes’ Tony Stark. Alden Ehrenreich, unlike the last time I saw him in Hail, Caesar!, is rather hit or miss in this film. At times he’s very good at portraying the inner turmoil and confusion of Frank Forbes, yet sometimes this just comes out as an impersonal smoulder, as if he’s doing his very best Edward Cullen/ Christian Grey impression. Still, when he’s good he’s very good – when he’s not brooding and smouldering, he’s charismatic and a pleasure to watch; something that bodes very well for his upcoming portrayal as a young Han Solo – so long as the director has a clear vision of Solo and doesn’t want him to brood.
On the other hand, as good as the cast is on the whole, chemistry between them all isn’t necessarily ideal. The apparent romantic lead couple, Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich, have little chemistry and it’s often hard to root for their relationship. Perhaps this is partly due to the writing, but their romance never seems to blossom and so suddenly comes from nowhere. They may be good individually, but together their romance never catches a spark with the audience. In fact, the chemistry between Howard Hughes and Frank is better; their relationship, although unromantic, makes more sense as it isn’t forced or rushed. It’s as though this relationship was supposed to be the main one, but this is never clear – this is the real weak point of the film.
The main problem of Rules Don’t Apply is its structure and focus. Unfortunately it frequently feels as though the script only went through a first draft that had potential but was sadly never given any real treatment. The structure of the story, the strange length of scenes and the way they’re cut together towards the start, the focus on characters and the writing all seems a bit off. The writing is often decent enough, bringing out the characters and some of the heart and humour, yet it does feel sometimes on the nose. The eschewing in off the title is initially quite cringe-worthy, reminding me of that Family Guy sketch, though it does later become more poignant and touching.
My main gripe regarding the structure is largely in the first half, in the run up to meeting the initially mysterious Howard Hughes. We’re thrown into everything, not quite knowing who’s who and who’s doing what and who wants what. Were the film to take time and explain things for us, let us grow to know the characters and establish them, that would be fine. But it initially all feels extremely rushed, some scenes being barely a minute long and ending so abruptly you can’t help but wonder what the point of them existing is. This really is detrimental to us engaging with the characters, though fortunately this is remedied somewhat later on, when the scenes get longer and we’re given time to breathe and know the characters. Ironically this is around the point where Warren Beatty appears; it feels as though he rushes through the beginning just to get to himself…
In fact it is Beatty’s focus on himself which is another huge issue with the film as it confuses everything, particularly the story. What initially seems like a love story between Marla and Frank, with Howard Hughes on the side to make the plot more interesting, soon switches around to be a Howard Hughes biopic actually starring Beatty and totally sidelining Marla, relegating Collins’ wonderful character to a mere problematic issue Hughes faces on the side. This clumsy lack of focus and indecisive story is the whole film’s undoing and it really is a shame. I do like Warren Beatty, but I can’t help but think that he shouldn’t have written it, starred in it AND directed it. It’s a pervading sense of ego that ruins the movie and it may have been better were he simply to do one of those jobs and not all three.
At least everything aesthetic is wonderful and the acting really is enjoyable. Sadly the lack of focus and clumsy structure are ultimately the unresolvable issues of the film. Although they may not have thought it, but the basic rules of filmmaking do still apply to Rules Don’t Apply. I think I’ll have to go watch Cinema Paradiso again to make me fall in love with this niche genre once more.