Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Not Just In Hollywood

Don’t look back. That’s the first thing to remember. Because nostalgia is a dead end and that’s just the way it goes. But RULES DON’T APPLY may for all we know turn out to be the last piece of work we ever get from Warren Beatty, not counting opening envelopes at the Oscars, so it’s hard not to consider how it fits in with the rest of his filmography. There’s the biopics he’s made such as BONNIE AND CLYDE, REDS and BUGSY but he didn’t direct each of those and this isn’t really a biopic anyway. Looking deeper, one could connect it to portrayals of the past that he’s depicted, whether real or imagined in films like REDS and DICK TRACY. It’s not nostalgia that these films are interested in but the pure essence of memory, of remembering, and the trap it can become as we grow older. Along those lines, you could say that it’s the man coming full circle, portraying what he was when he first came to Hollywood, how much of the world lay before him and his greatest fears of where he might end up, as well as what he might leave behind. Someone on Facebook suggested to me that REDS and DICK TRACY paired with RULES DON’T APPLY could form a trilogy entitled “Do Look Back” which I like because, after all, you’re going to. Even if you shouldn’t look back, you have no choice. The goal is just to avoid living in those memories since many of them are probably wrong anyway. So even though I said you shouldn’t look back we all know that you’re going to no matter what anyone says. The rules don’t apply, after all.
It’s safe to say that the RULES DON’T APPLY we got was not the Howard Hughes movie from Warren Beatty that we expected but it does feel like the film Warren Beatty wanted to make. Instead of another biopic what we got instead was a pleasant, endearingly clumsy comedy but the film also feels almost achingly personal if not somehow autobiographical. Beatty has famously had a Hughes project on the boards for decades, at least as far back as the HEAVEN CAN WAIT days, so the whole thing has become legend; I first got to see it last fall on the Fox lot a few weeks before release, complete with post-film Q&A (that was pretty cool, I have to be honest) and there were other such screenings around this period as the Thanksgiving release date approached. I mention all this mainly because considering how the film ultimately did pretty much nothing at the box office maybe most of the people who wanted to see it, the ones who had been waiting for years, had already gone to one of those screenings. Maybe the story of a crazy rich guy fucking with people’s lives isn’t as charming as it may have been at another time but maybe the audience for it has gone away since it’s been some years since BULWORTH by this point, not to mention certain other films and now we have to explain who Warren Beatty is to people of a certain age. But, in the end, we have the film. RULES DON’T APPLY is lots of things. It’s goofy, it’s befuddling, occasionally genuinely affecting and a little all over the place. Even people who’ve confessed to me that they love the film also admit they know it’s kind of a mess. And along those lines maybe it’s completely unfettered Warren Beatty. Instead of the grand final statement that maybe we were expecting it’s a film that doesn’t seem worried at all about impressing anyone and is perfectly content to amuse itself, in no rush to get to the point and without a care in the world. So while not without problems it also feels pure and about as personal a film released by a major studio these days as you can imagine.
Los Angeles, 1958 – Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) has just taken a job working as a chauffeur for the legendary Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) and one of his first assignments is to drive young actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) around town as she arrives in Hollywood on the Hughes payroll. Both of them come from religious backgrounds and both of them have to deal with being at Hughes’ beck and call at all hours. Frank is ambitious and tries to get Hughes interested in a real estate deal while Marla has little to do but wait for a screen test that she begins to believe may never happen. But as they get sucked further into the Hughes orbit they also have to deal with the growing feelings they have for each other which they can’t bring themselves to admit.
Some of the best moments in Warren Beatty films, directed by him or otherwise, often boil down to just him and one other person, often another woman, feeling each other out as they try to figure out how to make the needed connection, how to move forward to the next step. That’s all that matters, even if you’re having this fight in the middle of the Russian Revolution, even if the conflict in the scene only lasts five seconds. When you’re with that other person, you just need to figure out what the correct rules are and they don’t need to work for anybody else. “The rules don’t apply to you,” Frank Forbes tells Marla Mabrey after getting to know her and this is exactly when the phone rings to summon her to finally meet with the great man. When you’re ready it’ll be time, the film is saying. RULES DON’T APPLY contains many elements familiar from other Warren Beatty films—Hollywood (and Los Angeles), Las Vegas, filmmaking, politics all mixed in with the awkwardness and love that occurs between two people. It may not be an ultimate summation of his films but there are certainly echoes and it’s hardly a surprise since these are the same things he’s been preoccupied with all along.
Even without the “Never check an interesting fact” quote attributed to Hughes seen at the start it would be clear that sticking close to real events here never seems to have been part of Beatty’s intent. The biopic ground on Hughes was covered pretty considerably in THE AVIATOR over a decade ago and RULES DON’T APPLY (story by Beatty and Bo Goldman, screenplay by Beatty) is interested in Hughes but more than the specifics of his story it’s also interested in what surrounds him, whether the method of how the actresses working for him are paid, the guidelines Frank has to follow in driving them around or just the details of late 50s Hollywood and the brighter world everything about that represented. Even the issue of Hughes’ hearing is there but just barely and it also brushes past key public events to the aftermath, focusing on the people near Hughes who have no idea how to pin him down and no choice but to follow orders. The film delays his introduction but even afterwards lets him stay in the shadows thanks to DP Caleb Deschanel, keeping him lost in reveries of the past, forever talking about how young he was when his daddy left him the business and what that meant to him, refusing to sell the company which would mean losing the family name. It becomes Warren Beatty examining himself and his own past at least as much as Howard Hughes; when George Roundy is finally pinned down in SHAMPOO about his compulsive womanizing he admits that keeping all of them in his life “makes me feel like I’m going to live forever” which is something Howard Hughes (at least, this portrayal of Howard Hughes) is trying to do in his own way as well, the sight of Hughes with reels of film playing in front of him recalling how Beatty shot endless miles of footage for something like REDS. He describes himself as “more of a son than a father” keeping himself forever young in his mind, an alternate Charles Foster Kane who acquires people, airplanes and banana nut ice cream instead of endless statues in the quest to replicate what can never be found again to make sure his name doesn’t die. He talks about the concept of DNA, first identified around this time, obviously talking about what he wants to keep alive and it’s what drives him, forgetting that you can’t hold back the things that are going to make you old, whether you like it or not.
The two young leads also feel like a part of Beatty, each representing where he came from in some way, Frank Forbes looking to get ahead in the world and Marla Mabrey, from Virginia just like the man opposite her playing Hughes, confused about what she’s doing there to begin with and uncertain what she has to offer; like Beatty’s Lyle Rogers in ISHTAR she protests that she can write songs but isn’t a singer and not really sure what she wants to be. The two of them dwell on the similarities of where they came from with their religious backgrounds in common and both growing up with one bathroom in the house, each trying to deal with how what you want to give isn’t what people want from you, but uncertain what to do with all the feelings they can’t bring themselves to discuss. Their scenes together have energy almost as much as their first encounters with Hughes feel so tentative as if they barely know what to say in their first scenes playing opposite Warren Beatty. But there’s also a certain sharpness missing from the comedy here and while watching these scenes I sometimes get lost in the dream of what if Beatty had turned some of this over to Elaine May for a dialogue polish to help things (once or twice the syntax to the dialogue has a certain Aaron Sorkin twang not to mention the alliteration of character names; Sorkin worked uncredited on BULWORTH but nothing has leaked out about him on this one).
And yet, even during these moments the film has its own shaggy vibe as if it has no problem waiting for one of the characters to get to the point, particularly the way the first scene between Frank and Hughes holds in one long, extended take waiting for the jokey revelation of the legendary Hercules aircraft in front of them. The film always has something slightly unexpected in each scene and while it’s not as compulsively cinematic as the other films Beatty has directed which inspire multiple viewings of each of them, much of the time it’s pleasant enough along with a certain edge that makes the emotions messier and more complex than you’d maybe get from a filmmaker with a more straightforward goal in mind. It acknowledges that trying to figure out what you’re becoming isn’t always easy to grasp on to. Marla, the self-proclaimed songwriter sings what is in effect the film’s title song for both men with the film not worried at all that we’re hearing the whole thing more than once and it’s even a little sloppier the second time with the key lyric ‘but we haven’t long at all to find our destiny’ hanging in the air. Even the framing device leading into the main story set in Acapulco in 1964, relatively simple when compared to the witness interviews which structured REDS, is part of this feel of groping for answers—how did I get here? How did I get further away from who I thought I was? Is it possible to grow up, grow older, becoming who you were going to be, without feeling some sliver of regret?
Just as the characters are constantly trying to figure out Howard Hughes, figuring out the rhythms of RULES DON’T APPLY isn’t always easy but also feels part of the Beatty modus operandi siphoning each scene down to its essentials, even if it needs to be no more than a few seconds long. It does make sense for things to seemingly spin out of control as the characters get drawn further into the world of Hughes, as if Frank and Marla are getting sucked into their own futures against their will but it doesn’t always feel shaped quite right, certain scenes managing to be either too long or too short. One thing other Beatty-directed (and otherwise) films have in common is their forward momentum, from opening sections of REDS and Elaine May’s ISHTAR, to the nonstop pace of BULWORTH and the ways scenes in DICK TRACY feel designed to replicate a daily newspaper strip. In comparison, RULES DON’T APPLY putters along enjoyably but it all seems shaggy in its pacing, jumping forward when we want to get acclimated, slowing down when it needs to speed up. The tone even veers all around; unexpected broadness which has always been found in his films—even REDS has a few laughs—extends to the injuries from a horrific plane crash (I’m assuming the same one portrayed at length in THE AVIATOR) being brushed past to turn the aftermath into something out of a Laurel & Hardy short. The sudden love scene between the 80-ish Beatty and under-30 Collins willingly defies anyone who might object to the match in how comical it is but it’s not clear if the movie is aware that anyone might have an issue with the pairing. Not to mention the sometimes odd, unnecessary beats in the middle of scenes which makes the whole thing all the more eccentric. Just as in other Beatty films big names appear in small roles, sometimes very small, and I can hardly blame them for wanting to work with Beatty but it still feels like we’re not getting the significance some of these people who are based on real figures have to the Hughes world and clarification on the subplot involving Paul Schneider would maybe help too—it’s presumably meant to recall the Clifford Irving scandal (which happened several years after the film ends but never mind) but I still have some questions.
All this is not to say that RULES DON’T APPLY doesn’t have pleasures because it does, many of them seemingly out of nowhere from its odd humor showing the obsessiveness of Hughes—when we hear the reading a letter about a missing cat we know it’s just one of many—and his determination to keep out of sight of anyone else in the world. There’s a lyrical feel at certain points which almost come out of nowhere, emotions for the characters which are messy like emotions in life are messy, showing the way you deal with someone when you can’t say what you’ve been meaning to say for so long so the cruelty comes out instead. I saw RULES DON’T APPLY theatrically twice—the pre-release screening at Fox and then in a nearly empty theater at the Grove on a Sunday morning and both times my reaction was mostly the same, enjoying the pokiness but unable to deny some of its limitations and yet as the film got closer to the end I found myself surprisingly moved by it all. The child who comes into play in the final minutes pays off the constant stream of reasons Hughes has given why he’s always avoided this, serving as this film’s version of the young boy who hands the cup to Diane Keaton at the end of REDS (“I don’t even know, did they ever have any children?” one of the witnesses of that film asks about John Reed & Louise Bryant as the end credits roll) and even recalling DICK TRACY in the way he shouts “Kid!” at the kid in question. When confronted with the sense of possibility of what he never allowed to enter his life due to his obsessive micromanaging he comes back to life, if just for a few minutes. The film almost seems to build to his calm, accepting response of “So do you,” to something the kid tells him and the moment hits like a thunderbolt, a realization of something that he never even considered. Some Ennio Morricone music from the Italian TV movie PANE E LIBERTA is tracked in during the final moments to give the emotion that extra push and it’s possible that very little of this has to do with Howard Hughes. If anything, it has to do with whatever Hughes meant to Warren Beatty and how he saw his own story in this mythology. And it’s hard not to think about how much the film is really about him and maybe even an alternate universe of what he would have been if he’d never met Annette Bening (quite good here as Marla’s mother, although she’s not around for long) and if this is his last film then it’s as if the final two shots are Beatty today passing his own blessings back through the years to the person he once was and what he would eventually really become.
The most RULES DON’T APPLY scene in all of RULES DON’T APPLY might be when Hughes flies off to nowhere in particular with Frank and a British colonel played by Steve Coogan. It feels like it’s there because Beatty liked it but it also feels like a depiction of Beatty as a filmmaker—it shows Hughes taking his madness to the limit and Frank’s response to that but also Beatty’s own goals for this film taken to their extreme. As he bursts out in song with an Al Jolson number to the horror of the two men, almost recalling ISHTAR in a certain way, while barely keeping control of the plane he chuckles to himself almost as if he’s just glad he’s finally making this movie. So there’s not a thing to worry about except to make sure that no one changes who you are because if they do you’ll become something else. Someone who has to follow the rules. The film knows that Hughes is crazy. And brilliant. But even more than any of that, the only thing which really matters is what goes on behind closed doors between two people, away from the rest of the world.
Whether Beatty is playing Hughes in his own personal fog or some sort of alternate universe version of Beatty himself he finds the line of craziness, keeping in his own world while forcing a connection with another actor in the scene and timing that correctly keeps them off guard. You can almost see his brain working through those silences and he correctly keeps him always a little impenetrable. Alden Ehrenreich is relaxed and confident as Frank, always engaging with the other actors while showing no fear, always determined in his expression to not lose sight of what he thinks is what he needs. Lily Collins displays an innocence mixed with insecurity along with just the right amount of smarts all mixed in with the right screwball flavor when it’s needed and ready to explode when the arguments need to crackle. Matthew Broderick as fellow Hughes driver Levar makes the most of his chances to really throw dialogue back at Beatty while Oliver Platt gets a few scenes to bellow like he did in BULWORTH. A number of the other big names are in there only briefly including Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen, Dabney Coleman and Martin Sheen making as much of an impression as they can. There are some pretty fascinating possibilities around the edges of this real life story that the film skates past—look up the story of Hughes associate Robert Maheu, played here in just a few scenes by Baldwin and you’ll want to see that film. Also notable is the appearance by producer (there are many listed) Steve Mnuchin as one of the Merrill Lynch executives, who can be seen silently sitting there as Oliver Platt desperately tries to talk to Hughes on the phone and is currently the Secretary of the Treasury. I suppose drawing the direct line between Howard Hughes and certain people in our lives right now is unavoidable.
Like Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE, RULES DON’T APPLY concludes in Mexico on a note where someone realizes that there’s nowhere to go but forward. And like that Altman film, “Hooray for Hollywood” is heard at the start and very end (well, the very end of the closing credits, anyway). I don’t think Beatty is intentionally recalling his McCABE & MRS. MILLER director here or anything else of that sort but the forlorn piano version is kind of a reminder that the film is about something definitively ending. It’s not that hard to draw parallels to this film and any number of other latter day appearances by legendary stars whether Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT, which also paired him with a much younger female lead, or Cary Grant’s final film WALK DON’T RUN where he was the one responsible for putting the two young lovers together. In some ways, RULES DON’T APPLY is about the unavoidability of The End but it’s also about how all you can do about the past is acknowledge it from a distance and wish it well. Now just watch Beatty announce a new film tomorrow and throw this whole theory out of whack. The film may have been a flop but I never count him out. For him the rules don’t apply, after all. Because every now and then you have to look back to understand how you got where you are.

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