"Almost a Morality Tale"
What You Need To Know:
In some ways, RULES DON’T APPLY may reflect Writer/Director Warren Beatty’s own story about his lost teenage Christian faith. However, just like Howard Hughes is always shot in shadows here, the movie always obscures its morality tale and fails to deliver on the promise of redemption. RULES DON’T APPLY ultimately has a vaguely humanist, agnostic, lawless worldview with plenty of strong foul language and scenes where the main characters are tempted by illicit affairs. They believe the rules don’t apply to them. Howard’s addiction to painkillers is rebuked, however. That said, MOVIEGUIDE® advises extreme caution for RULES DON’T APPLY.
(HH, CC, B, LLL, V, SS, AA, DD, MM) Vaguely humanist, agnostic, antinomian (or lawless) worldview about two strong Christians who go to church and pray in the name of Jesus but come to Hollywood and lose their faith, with a very vague question by Howard Hughes about whether his assistant, Frank, still believes, and both of them affirming they don’t know at the end, all of which almost adds up to a morality tale but not quite; 13 obscenities, 15 strong profanities as well as several strong affirmations in the beginning about Jesus; very light violence includes plane crashes, man in full bandage in hospital room, couple breaks glass table; intense sex with two Christians who give up their faith in Hollywood, the girl gets depressed and drinks a bottle of champagne and then sexually attacks Howard Hughes producing a son, and young starlet has a passionate encounter with young man who spots his pants in the process and is almost caught by his superior, and man discusses going all the way with his girlfriend back home, and man has sexual encounters in Nicaragua and other places, but all sex scenes shot in shadows; no nudity but some female cleavage; alcohol use and intense drunkenness; minor smoking and billionaire Howard Hughes is addicted to heavy pain killers that damages his mental faculties, a major plot point in the movie; and, breaking the rules because the rules don’t apply, deception, violating one’s contract, deceiving the government, avoiding accountability, and movie may be mocking Christian faith but that’s debatable.
RULES DON’T APPLY tells the story of the fall from Christian faith of a young man and a young woman who come to Hollywood to work for Howard Hughes, the billionaire who owned many companies, including RKO Pictures, Trans World Airlines and Hughes Tools. The movie could also be seen as a psychological biopic about the aging Warren Beatty himself, whose life is reflected in the character of both the young man, Frank Forbes, and Howard Hughes.
The movie opens with a quote from Howard Hughes, “Never check an interesting fact.” Cut to 1964, where the news media waits for a call from Howard Hughes to see whether he still has his mental faculties since he’s caught up in serious legal charges by Congress and by a tell-all biographer. If he doesn’t have his faculties, he’s in a position where he could lose everything.
Switch to 1958, where Marla Mabrey, accompanied by her mother, Lucy, is coming from rural Virginia to Hollywood for a screen test for Howard Hughes at RKO Pictures. Marla is a virgin and a strong Christian. Marla’s mother is convinced Hollywood will corrupt anyone and everyone. She and her mother are picked up at the airport by Frank Forbes, a young man who’s just come to work for Howard Hughes as a driver so he can convince Hughes to finance his real estate deal. Frank also is a strong Christian but already has started to stray from his faith. Each one of these key characters talks openly about Jesus, faith and prayer. Frank reads them the rules that he’s not allowed to say anything about Howard, that all the women need drivers, and that Hughes is very protective of his starlets.
At the studio, there are a bevy of beauties. Marla is clearly the one innocent in the group. After days of waiting, Marla gets a meeting with Howard Hughes in the dark at a bungalow in the Beverly Hills Hotel, with a big bed in the room.
When Howard enters, he sits in the shadow, and they both are served two Swanson’s frozen TV dinners by another driver. It’s established quickly that Marla has never had a drink, that she’s a virgin and that her great talent is her intelligence and songwriting, not her singing, dancing or acting.
A few hours later, Howard finally meets with Frank, because Howard is afraid his drivers are having “hanky panky” with his starlets. Hughes lives in the shadows, and everyone’s concerned he’s losing his mind. His lawyer, Noah Dietrich, played by Martin Sheen, thinks he should see a psychiatrist. Hughes constantly talks about his father and doesn’t want to see a psychiatrist or give up his company.
Meanwhile, Marla and Frank are attracted to each other, but Frank is engaged to another girl back home, with whom he has already “gone all the way.” Marla thinks that means Frank is, in God’s eyes, married to the girl already. As things develop, both Frank and Marla get frustrated waiting for Howard. Their passion starts to get the best of them. At the same time, Hughes finds a legal solution to his problems: if he gets married, he can’t be sent to an asylum.
After a semi-tryst with Frank, Marla is depressed, goes to see Howard and gets drunk on champagne. Howard gives her a ring and says they don’t need a priest, they are married, and they have passionate sex. Marla finds out she’s having a baby, but when she goes to tell Howard, she discovers he married Jean Peters, and he doesn’t want to hear anything about her problems or the baby.
Marla heads back to Virginia, and Frank becomes Howard’s right hand man. Soon, it’s clear Frank finally has lost his Christian faith. Another driver, Levar, asks Frank, “You’ve stopped saying grace, haven’t you?” Also, Howard gets more and more wacky, and [SPOILER ALERT] Howard asks Frank if he still believes all that stuff about God. Frank says he doesn’t know, and Howard says, “Neither do I, and I don’t want to do what I have to do to find out.”
These agnostic statements give a glimmer of what the movie could have been, should have been, and may have been the movie Warren Beatty wanted to make, a morality tale that reflects his own coming to Hollywood in the 1960s. In several interviews about the movie by Variety and others, Warren remembers leaving Virginia as an on-fire Baptist: who gave his testimony when he got baptized in a Southern Baptist Church; who preached; who was a youth leader; whose role model was a youth pastor; and, whose parents were committed Christians. In Hollywood, Warren became a star very quickly, in his first movie in 1961, and, it is claimed by the American Film Institute, that he’s the oldest or longest career Hollywood star in the movies of his generation. His only challenger would be Clint Eastwood, who started in television.
As a star, Warren became known for being a playboy and that led to becoming a hard-core leftist, so much so that he made an movie homage to communism called REDS. In some ways, it should be noted, communism or pure Marxism is a counterfeit gospel, which enforces equality and communism by the dictatorship of the proletariat, or so-called “working class.” One Hollywood executive was so tired of Warren’s preaching communism that he stomped out of one of Warren’s dinner party and left Hollywood.
In 1992, Warren married Annette Bening, and they’ve had four children. Now, at the age of 79, he says he abhors divorce and his children are everything.
In some ways, RULES DON’T APPLY Howard Hughes asking a question that reflects his desire and Warren’s desire for his youthful Christian faith. However, just like Howard Hughes is always shot in shadows, the movie always obscures its morality tale and fails to deliver on the promise of redemption. The Christian scenes could be and probably will be interpreted as slightly mocking by those who aren’t Christian. Like Howard Hughes, Warren Beatty is guarding his options. When he got up to speak at the screening, it’s clear he’s aging fast. His speech was halting, his memory was spotty, and we can only pray Warren returns to the Good News that Jesus wants to set him free from his demons and give him an abundant eternal life.
Sex is the driving corrupting element in the morality tale that is RULES DON’T APPLY. It overcomes Marla, Frank and Howard’s inhibitions. Also, Hughes takes many drugs to take away the pain he suffers from a serious plane crash. The drugs muddle Howard Hughes’ brilliant mind, which invented some of the most important inventions of the 20th Century. The movie’s sex scenes are provocative but not explicit. Howard’s drug problem is explicitly condemned, but alcohol abuse is seen as liberating.
Finally, the message of the movie’s title, which are the words Frank says to Marla and Marla composes as a song for Frank and Howard, are that, “The rules don’t apply.” Each one of the major characters thinks they’re an exception to the rules: the rules of loyalty, chastity, decency, sobriety, loving God, loving your neighbor. It is said time and again that these people are exceptions. This message is slightly contradicted by the movie’s ending, but many people who view this movie will take away the movie’s elitist, antinomian (or lawless) message instead.
One can only hope Warren Beatty has a few more movies in him, and that those movies will become more explicit in a return to faith and values. Please keep him in your prayers.