Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Rules Don't Apply: Chaos reigns

Rules Don't Apply (2016) • View trailer 
One star. Rated PG-13, for sexual candor and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Oh, my.

This may not be Warren Beatty’s worst film — Ishtar and Town & Country still arm-wrestle for that distinction — but it runs a close third.

Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), hoping to become a Hollywood star, finds herself spending
lots of time with driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), who seems a poor substitute
for potential mentor Howard Huges. Initially, anyway...
Much has been made about the “sudden” appearance of this new Beatty project: the first time he has appeared on screen since 2001 (in the aforementioned Town & Country), and the first film he has written, directed, produced and starred in, since 1998’s Bulworth (also far from a classic).

Warren, you shoulda stayed retired.

Alas, too many artists cannot resist the itch to create, long after common sense should have removed them from the stage.

In fairness, even at its worst — and there’s plenty of “worst” to go around — Beatty’s new film reveals traces of the idiosyncratic sparkle that bloomed to perfection in classics such as Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait. And, at 79 years young, Beatty himself remains a master of the roguish twinkle and droll double-takes that made him such a memorable screen presence, back in the day.

But Rules Don’t Apply remains a mess.

It’s the worst sort of self-indulgent vanity project: a bloated, bewildering, pointless excuse to shovel several dozen high-profile guest stars into meaningless, ill-defined and under-developed parts. The so-called story is a muddle — Beatty sharing scripting credit with Bo Goldman — and the limply executed result commits the entertainment world’s most unpardonable sin: It’s boring.

Turgid, mind-numbingly dull, I’d-rather-endure-root-canal-surgery tedious.

It’s also superfluous. While Beatty is the right age to deliver his interpretation of Howard Hughes’ tragic final years, there’s no reason to do so. This film’s script offers no information, no character analysis, that wasn’t covered far better by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, in 2004’s The Aviator.

On top of which, the whole Howard Hughes riff apparently is intended as mere framing device for a stuttering courtship between two young lovers caught in the eccentric industrialist’s disintegrating orbit. It’s a clumsy narrative device, and it fails utterly. Those who grimly slog through this film’s interminable 126 minutes still won’t care a whit about any of these characters.

I’m surprised that Goldman returned to this particular well, having won an Academy Award for writing 1980’s far more successful Hughes project, Melvin and Howard. Now, that was a clever, precocious, charming and thoroughly entertaining lark.

All of which are qualities sorely lacking in Beatty’s newest — and undoubtedly final — misfire.

The story is set in the late 1950s, as Hughes is beginning to exhibit the paranoia, monomania and repetitive tics that would consume him within a few years. His attention is divided between TWA — arguing the necessity of upgrading the entire fleet, from propellers to jet engines — and his RKO film studio. The latter has become little more than an excuse to put a couple dozen young cuties “under contract” for unspecified future movies, in order to have ready access to them.

But we don’t meet Hughes right away. Center focus initially belongs to Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a corn-fed Midwestern girl with Hollywood stars in her eyes, who has traveled to California with her devoutly Baptist mother (Annette Bening). Both are astonished to discover that Hughes has put them up in a posh bungalow overlooking the Hollywood Bowl, where they can hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearse.

They’re ferried from airport to bungalow by Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a young driver recently hired by Hughes, for the express purpose of driving his ingénues to and from RKO. (Hughes refuses to give the young women their own cars, wisely figuring that he’d never be able to keep track of them.)

Marla hopes to become an actress, having been promised a screen test for a movie with the dubious title of Stella Starlight. Frank, with real estate stars in his eyes, hopes he’ll be able to talk Hughes into investing in a “terrific” land deal.

Alas, days and weeks pass before Marla and Frank even get to meet Hughes.

They’re not alone. Investors represented by Forester (Oliver Platt) have been waiting in their own bungalow, prepared to sink $600 million into Hughes’ TWA endeavor ... but only if they’re able to discuss the arrangement in person. Hughes CEO Noah Dietrich (Martin Sheen) occasionally gets brief face time, only to endure increasingly delusional rants. Bob Maheu (Alec Baldwin), for many years the CEO of Hughes’ Nevada operations, never has met the man.

Instead, everybody has to settle for long-suffering gatekeepers Levar Mathis (Matthew Broderick), head of Hughes’ pool of drivers; and Nadine Henly (Candice Bergen), Hughes’ secretary.

As introduced, both Marla and Frank are devout Sunday church-goers, although the latter already “did the deed” with childhood sweetheart Sarah (Taissa Farmiga), whom he left behind in Fresno, with eventual plans to marry. (Ed Harris and Amy Madigan have pointless, eye-blink cameos as Sarah’s parents.)

Marla, on the other hand, truly is a good girl; she’s never even touched alcohol, and — as the days and weeks pass — she becomes increasingly uncomfortable in the presence of Hughes’ other, far more worldly actresses-in-waiting.

And, as she spends more time being chaperoned by Frank, the increasingly lonely Marla can’t help feeling a spark. So does Frank, despite Levar’s dire warnings that Hughes strictly forbids fraternization between drivers and ingénues.

OK, so a reasonable romantic comedy could have emerged from this premise. But the film doesn’t go there; instead, we endure a bizarre detour that finds a first-time-inebriated Marla getting up close and personal with Hughes: a jaw-droppingly uncomfortable bit of old codger wish-fulfillment depicted with a degree of clumsy explicitness that not even Woody Allen would have dared.

After which, Marla’s behavior becomes almost as erratic as Hughes.

Frank, meanwhile, has become Hughes’ trusted companion; the two soon are inseparable, Frank now deflecting most of his mentor’s would-be clients, visitors and government investigators. Frank, terrified of flying, also is forced to endure Hughes’ impulsive desires to take the controls of various planes, most aggressively in a prop-driven Lockheed Constellation (a cameo by Steve Coogan, as a reluctant co-pilot).

Again, OK, a reasonable buddy dramedy could have been carved from this developing bond between Frank and Howard ... but — as previously mentioned — Goldman already did that, and far better, with Melvin and Howard. While this new film occasionally displays some charm — as when Frank and Hughes share a late-night hamburger, seated on a pier facing the infamous Spruce Goose — such scenes are rare exceptions.

Mostly, Beatty’s directorial control seems entirely absent, his guiding hand as erratic as his portrayal of Hughes. Ehrenreich and Collins are both talented young actors — the former the only bright spark in the Coen brothers’ similarly botched Hail, Caesar! — but neither of them can rise above this maladroit script. Poor Collins can’t begin to make Marla’s behavior seem sensible.

The only two consistently superb “performances” come from production designer Jeannine Oppewall and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who orchestrate miracles in the re-creation of 1958 Los Angeles and Hollywood. Merely driving with Frank and Marla, looking out both sides of the vehicle as they navigate busy streets, is a marvel of time-travel buildings, billboards and businesses. The cars, bungalows, RKO studio interiors and everything else are equally authentic.

But it doesn’t matter if you’re dressed impeccably, if there’s nowhere to go. Rules Don’t Apply is the lamentable result when a once-talented filmmaker no longer knows what to do with his toys. And it’s a very sad epitaph for Beatty’s once-golden career.

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