YOU BET I THINK THIS SONG IS ABOUT YOU
Against other self-made Boomers like Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford, I’ll take Warren Beatty in a walk.
Productions in which Beatty was the 800-lb gorilla are virtually all he has made for 50 years, and he has stayed political but mostly avoided being didactic (Reds notwithstanding). Redford, on the other hand, quickly declined from outstanding work like Ordinary People to an increasingly dull series of social-conscience sermons. Quiz Show is very good, but Lions for Lambs is mostly taken up by the Sundance Kid’s tweedy lecture to Tom Cruise as a shark-suit politician; it’s a meta-cringe for the ages.
For his part, Eastwood’s record of reactive mediocrity is unrivaled; you can almost hear him calling “Print!” after every take. He shoots anything that walks or crawls through the same muddy frame Bruce Surtees and Don Siegel taught him to box. Mostly whatever he shoots dies.
Beatty hasn’t been as prolific as either of them; he has enjoyed himself quite a bit between projects, a man as celebrated for eating his cake as for having it. But he has always paid attention to the art of entertainment, famously exacting in his lavish application of resources. As a producer-director he learned from every genius he ever hired, including Elaine May, Buck Henry, Hal Ashby, Laszlo Kovacks. The results are mostly personal and scrupulous. You may not like Dick Tracy, but you’d have to be a shit.
Between 1966 and 1978, Beatty produced and starred in Bonnie and Clyde, Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait, three of the sharpest observations of American culture from the sharpest era of American pop. His imprint is all over the scripts, the design, the acting. He was good at it and nobody knew it better than he. A half-dozen executive memoirs tell the story of Beatty’s long-weekend fight to make sure his cock looked good in the poster for Heaven Can Wait. When you can fuck all the fucks, you go ahead and do it.
Howard Hughes knew something about that. Beatty plays that finger-every-pie billionaire in his new film Rules Don’t Apply, an ungainly project that took over a decade to get from development to theaters. Inexpensive by Hollywood standards (less than $30 million in reported budget), it is far less poignant an example of American production hubris than, say, this year’s Democratic National Convention. It is still a could-have-been for a star whose trajectory hasn’t recovered from the collapse of Town and Country fifteen years ago.
Ostensibly the mid-century story of star-crossed Hughes minions, a contract actress and a yes-man, Rules Don’t Apply is a fascinating watch for over an hour, until it isn’t: Until you try to weave Beatty and Matthew Broderick and Candice Bergen and Alec Baldwin and Ed Harris and Paul Schneider and Dabney Coleman and Annette Bening and Paul Sorvino from an epic shred.
More or less at the center of the picture, Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich are blossoms in full Spring, given little to do but pout prettily in a script that plays as if it was once a lot longer. Collins makes hay of a two-sequence Very Bad Day, twice singing a lovely title tune by Eddie Arkin and Lorraine Feather, but Ehrenreich is afforded no similar opportunity in this cut.
As an unhinged junkie tycoon pushes would-be lovers to the side, it is only occasionally clear that this is a fairy tale of expectations lowered by time. The ambitious central metaphor should achieve catharsis in the self-reflexive casting of Beatty as a monomaniac manipulator of fresh young things. It should, simultaneously, effect a bouying of spirit. That’s a high-comedy act Buck Henry and Hal Ashby could have helped him pull off. Bo Goldman is the only credited writer besides Beatty.
It’s a movie that might have been sprawling rather than episodic, lightly moving rather than ultimately ponderous. Technically, it’s an atypical sketchy entry for Beatty. The acting’s all pretty good, and nobody photographs Americana better than Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Natural); production designer Jeannine Oppewall and costumer Albert Wolsky have given Deschanel a landscape that aches with visual nostalgia. But the scenes are uneven in writing and direction, the editing style is inconsistent (four credited editors) except in killing the comic timing, and tonal discrepancies (sixteen credited producers) are pasted over with howling string sections (additional music by Andrew M. Chukerman).
Still, it’s only a misfire from a venerable American rocket. It probably marks a decline from Beatty’s last direction, the political slapstick Bulworth. But I would watch this again, twice, before I would watch a cape movie with Ben Affleck in it. I would watch it again three times if that meant I didn’t have to see the next three Star Wars entries. I am glad of the distractions which will likely prevent me.
Rules Don’t Apply
Twentieth Century Fox
USA | 127 minutes | PG-13
in wide release November 23, 2016
for more info, visit Rules at Fox