Rules Don't Apply
Eccentric playboy billionaire geniuses are a dime a dozen … in the comics. But in reality, there was only one Howard Hughes.
Before Bruce Wayne ever slapped on a cowl or Tony Stark cobbled together his first Iron Man suit, Hughes was building revolutionary aircraft and setting world airspeed records. He headed a movie studio in his spare time, pushing such movies as 1930's Hell's Angels and 1932's Scarface to the big screen. He cavorted with starlets, bought property like popcorn, and really, really loved banana nut ice cream.
Oh, and he became a bit … eccentric. To paraphrase Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, anyone who locks himself in his studio's screening room for four months subsisting only on chicken and chocolate bars clearly has issues.
In Rules Don't Apply, Frank Ford begins working for Howard Hughes in the late 1950s. He's a driver—one of dozens Howard has hired to chauffer his studio's young, pretty starlets around. Not that they've actually starred in anything. Most of them are simply on call for when Howard is ready to make another movie. They each have their own, beautiful Los Angeles homes. They want for nothing except work. They get their paychecks right on time—even though they have to wait outside an open window and have the checks conveyed via line and pole, as if they're fish on the hook of a very generous fisherman.
But Howard places other conditions on his young almost starlets, too: They have to be chaste, and they have to be watched. Sure, they can have their houses, thanks to Howard's seemingly limitless bank account. But they can't have their own cars. Thus, the drivers. It goes without saying that Frank and his other automotive cohorts are forbidden from—ahem—fraternizing with the talent. Oh, they can make pleasant small talk as long as they never talk about Howard. But hanky panky is forbidden on the pain of death. (Career death, that is. Los Angeles frowns on private executions, even as carried out by Howard Hughes.)
Frank's willing to obey Howard's directive. He believes the man is a genius. Moreover, he'd actually like to rope the billionaire in a real estate project he's been thinking about, and to do that, he'll have to stay in the man's good graces.
But that was before Marla Mayberry, a Virginia beauty queen and aspiring actress, crawled into his back seat with her mother. Suddenly, Howard's billions don't have quite the pull they used to.
Frank is a conscientious employee. As he works his way into the billionaire's inner circle, Frank shows a preternatural ability to address Howard's needs and a willingness to go the extra mile to see those needs are met. When Howard develops a taste for Baskin Robbins' banana nut ice cream, for instance—a flavor that Baskin Robbins recently discontinued—Frank's the guy who finds the last available gallons and has them shipped to Las Vegas for Howard.
But Frank's devotion has its limits, and he's sometimes one of the only people in Howard's line of sight willing to tell him what the billionaire doesn't want to hear. He warns Howard that his drug use "not only makes you constipated, it makes you crazier."
Howard is crazy, no question. But the film also suggests that he still has a deep affection for his father. Much of what he has achieved is rooted, in part, in protecting his daddy's lineage and, perhaps, a desire to make him proud.
Both Frank and Marla begin the movie as deeply committed Christians. Frank is a Methodist who attends church every Sunday. He's engaged to his high school sweetheart, who believes that when you have sex (which she and Frank did), you're essentially married and committed to each other for life.
Marla and her mother are arguably even more religious. When they first get into Frank's back seat, the mom's first question is, "And what church do you go to?" Followed shortly thereafter by, "Do you know where the nearest Baptist church would be?" Marla exclaims, "Blessed Savior!" while the mother utters "Lord in heaven!" Both pray with families and friends before meals. We see both attend church. And there's some talk about how Billy Graham says we're "all sinners."
But religion, as it's manifested in Rules Don't Apply, is less a sincere expression of faith and more an illustration of our characters' innocence and naiveté—and a device to explain Marla's commitment to abstinence. (A commitment that, as we shall see in the section below, is temporary.) Both she and Frank sit in church services where sexual purity is stressed in the sermon, with one pastor quoting Ecclesiastes 3:5: "There is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing."
By the end of the movie, when Howard asks Frank whether he believes all the stuff he used to—God, heaven, all of it—Frank says that he doesn't know whether he does or not.
Frank and Marla fall for each other (of course). One night, after Marla plays a song for Frank on the piano, the two make out frantically, breaking a glass table as they do so. Though clothed the entire time, the stimulation leaves a stain on Frank's pants. Marla scolds herself for being so "loose." Frank's supervisor, Levar, stops by Marla's house, and Marla and Frank scramble to hide the stain.
Shortly thereafter, Howard meets with Marla to talk about her hypothetical movie. They hit it off, and Howard eventually gives her a ring, saying, "With this ring I do thee wed." That's enough for an inebriated Marla. She lustily attacks the billionaire, and the two begin removing their clothes. (We see Marla in a blouse and panties and, later, Howard in his boxers as he dresses.) But Howard quickly disappears, and later news broadcasts report that Howard snuck away to marry actress Jean Peters.
[Spoiler Warning] Marla's brief encounter with Howard results in a pregnancy. She returns home and appears ready to get an abortion: She discusses the matter with her mother in church and, with Mom's approval, they prepare to visit a doctor. But she doesn't abort the child. Several years later, she takes the boy to visit his father.
Frank breaks up with his fiancée, who is horrified that he would leave her after they had gone "all the way." Before her encounter with Howard, Marla makes a big deal of her commitment to chastity. "I have to be sure," she says. Others talk about Marla's reputation for purity. And when other actresses make crude references to sex (using a variety of creative euphemisms), it's a long time before Marla understands exactly what they're referencing. Marla's mother frets that Howard might want to meet Marla in "some hotel room."
Marla is slightly aghast that she's asked to model a bathing suit (which we don't see). When she first meets Howard, the billionaire comes toward her in a vaguely threatening manner, looking like he wants to grab her breasts. (Instead, he grabs the seat back behind her.) Before Frank and Marla are an item, Howard quizzes Frank on what he believes Marla's morals to be. He and others regularly stress that there is to be no non-work fraternization between actresses and drivers, in part (he says) to avoid the risk of the actresses contracting venereal diseases.
Levar is willing to break policy, though, and he often suggests to Marla that they could meet up when no one's looking. (Marla's not interested.) Levar makes crude comments about Marla to Frank. Howard describes, in detail, how an actress's top should fit—to accentuate the bosom without making it look like the actress has extra nipples. He commands drivers to drive slowly over bumps so as to not "jostle unsupported body parts." There's discussion of venereal diseases and birth control.
Marla slaps Frank. Howard, in trying to set another flight record, apparently crashes. We don't see the accident, but later we do see him in the hospital, swathed in bandages from head to toe.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word, one s-word and an ice-cream scoop of other profanities, including "b--ch," "d--n" and "h---." Howard's favorite profanity is "g--d--n," which he says about 10 times. God's name is otherwise misused twice, and Jesus' name is abused once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Marla prides herself on having never taken a sip of alcohol—until the night of her rendezvous with Howard. Kept waiting for what seems like hours, she opens a bottle of champagne and downs most of it before Howard steps in the room. The fact that Marla was drunk led to her sexual encounter.
Others drink on occasion, and actresses and others smoke as well. Howard is addicted to painkillers, sometimes shouting for his assistants to get him more.
Other Negative Elements
Howard complains about being constipated.
Film legend Warren Beatty wrote, directed and played Howard Hughes in Rules Don't Apply—his first big-screen appearance in 15 years. Good thing the film has that going for it, because there's precious little else that stands out.
Rules Don't Apply is a bizarre romantic dramedy that just doesn't work. It's main attraction is a nearly 80-year-old actor, but its comedic sensibility is that of an '80s teen sex comedy. It takes one of the 20th century's most enigmatic figures and boils him down to a two-dimensional character, notable only for his collection of eccentricities and tics.
Stars stud this Beatty comeback vehicle: Annette Bening, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen and Martin Sheen all make appearances. Yet many of them barely say a word—their star luster lost in a movie that doesn't know what to do with them. The romance works for a while, but the film purposefully undercuts their relationship and all the stuff—the innocence, the devotion, the goodness—that drew us to those characters in the first place.
It's sad that this film about Howard Hughes also lacks any sort of real moral underpinning. It seems the makers took its title, Rules Don't Apply, quite seriously. In Howard, we're given a character who never followed the unwritten rules of business or behavior. Marla is told that she can be a star even if she's not blond or buxom or even talented. Frank and Marla buck rules that keep them apart—and, of course, shed their church's rules along the way, too.
It's an appealing, tempting message. All of us, after all, have a few rules we'd prefer to ignore. But in the end, it's not a particularly productive one. While I believe that it can be healthy to challenge and question our rules and guidelines and boxes at times, those rules still do apply. We follow the rules of physics, whether we want to or not. We follow natural rules. We follow our own man-made rules, too—and typically they're worth following. It'd be pretty chaotic if we decided that the rule to stop at stoplights didn't apply to us. And if a man-made rule strikes us as unfair, we hopefully, eventually, find ways to change it.
God's rules apply to us, too—even when we pretend that they don't. This movie pretends exactly that, and thus falls down in one more area.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Lily Collins as Marla Mabrey; Alden Ehrenreich as Frank Forbes; Warren Beatty as Howard Hughes; Annette Bening as Lucy Mabrey; Matthew Broderick as Levar Mathis; Alec Baldwin as Bob Maheu; Martin Sheen as Noah Dietrich
Warren Beatty ( )
November 23, 2016
February 28, 2017