Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 28, 2016 2:43 pm 
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Love in a time of Howard

Maybe Warren Beatty's film about Howard Hughes "tanked" Thanksgiving weekend; it's still by far the most original, personal, smart American movie to come out. If it hasn't gotten many good reviews, it's becaue people don't know how to approach it. They're thinking Howard Hughes was already "done," big time, by Martin Scorsese in The Aviator twelve years ago with a flashy star, Leonardo DiCaprio: but DiCaprio wasn't really right for the oddball role even as the young Hughes. The man got indirect but memorable treatment in 1980, in Melvin and Howard, by the early, brilliant Jonathan Demme. In Melvin and Howard, a seedy-looking older Hughes appears only briefly, spectrally, in an early sequence, then dominates the rest of the action only as an unseen background influence. Howard Hughes is more notable as a specter, and it's quite a while before he appears at all in Rules Don't Apply, with Beatty in the main role of his own film, which he wrote and directed, finally peering out tentatively, from behind a curtain, as Howard Hughes.

It's 1964, a big long-distance press and radio interview with Hughes has been set up so he can disprove a hack biographer's claim that he's totally bonkers (which he's not), while a gang of bankers are simultaneously housed in a nearby bungalow ready to negotiate a $400 million loan to help convert TWA from prop to jet engines. He is refusing to meet the bankers in person and holding off from talking to the press corps, who are ignorant even of his location (the bankers know he's nearby, but not in which bungalow). The film then flashes back to 1959, when two young people enter the story. One of them, named Frank, we've already seen quietly pleading with Howard to come out.

The dashing flyer, seducer, inventor turned eccentric, reclusive, codeine-addicted billionaire seems a wonderful subject for a movie - till you realize how tedious an old man hiding out in a room can be. Beckett makes stasis interesting; Howard Hughes doesn't. Beatty renders his theme palatable by two simple expedients. First, he keeps it light. In his sympathetic, positive review of the film in the Times Stephen Holden suggests Rules Don't Apply feels like "a screwball Citizen Kane." Beatty provides a gentle, affectionate portrait of Hughes. His Hughes has his, Beatty's, own goofy, dazed eyes, and frequently smiles and chuckles. It's all a joke to him. Just when he's about to get dictatorial and sadistic the chuckle arrives and tension dissipates. Second, the grim outcome of Hughes' growing paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder becomes unimportant because much of the film is simply focused on something happening within his sphere of influence, but elsewhere. This is a comedy and a romance, with Hughes shifting in and out of view. The main focus is the delayed, but ultimately fulfilled, love affair of a charming young man and woman.

They are Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins, resembling the young Liz Taylor), a "small town beauty queen," aspiring actress and songwriter brought to Hughes' L.A. compound - along with 27 others! - for a "screen test," and Frank Mathis (Alden Ehrenreich), assigned as her regular driver. Following Hughes' protective system, they've been chosen partly because they're devout protestant churchgoers. The movie notes and mocks the puritanism of the Fifties. Marla and Frank are very restrained. Nonetheless there's never any doubt that it's love at first sight, obviously on his part, but on hers as well. Like Lily Collins, Ehrenreich has period good looks, more a classic Apollo than the male cuties of today. His trajectory has gone from flops and minor roles to stealing the show as an adorably buffoonish cowboy actor in the Coens' Hail, Caesar and, after this excellent part, the new Star Wars Han Solo. Ehrenreich has an ordinary guy quality, but also a strong presence.

As Holden points out, Rules Don't Apply has various subtexts, and Beatty's focus on Hughes is an opportunity to comment on his own identity as a handsome, rich, reclusive Casanova - and also someone who knows firsthand the connections between fame, glamour, power, and politics. It's an interesting commentary that early in the film Annette Benning, Beatty's wife, who led to the end of his own philandering, appears as Marla's strict, controlling mother, who arrives with her, but is later eased out of the picture. The story is also a process of indulging and confronting eccentricity, of gaining and losing the confidence of a paranoid. Matthew Broderick is Levar Mathis, Hughes' trusted go-between and protector whose coddling fosters his growing weirdness. The bloated, borderline hysterical Mathis is becoming as nutty as Howard. Frank gains Hughes' trust by talking straight and knocking some sense into him from time to time, gets to call him Howard, and coaxes him into financing an affordable housing plan he has. But then the time comes for the healthy person, which Frank is, to say goodbye to Howard - and resume his delayed romance.

Howard does talk to the press (from his secluded room), and feels a lot better for it, vowing, vainly, to "get out more." Somehow the bankers are placated. The bright romantic comedy finale comes about when Frank resigns his job with Howard; goes out into the sunlight; and catches up with Marla, for a kiss. That's really all there is to the story. But the movie is made of up other things, really - wry observations about Beatty's own life, maybe Donald Trump, power, celebrity, American oddity and American exceptionalism. This is a charming film that has a rich texture. They don't make a Warren Beatty movie every day. In fact they haven't made one in 18 years, and only he can do it. It has been underrated by critics. Go see for yourself.

Rules Don't Apply, 126 mins., opens in a dozen or so countries in Nov., Dec. 2016, Jan., Mar. and April 2017; US release 23 Nov. 2016, UK, 27 Jan. 2017.

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]LILY COLLINS AND ALDEN EHRENREICH IN RULES DON'T APPLY

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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