I’ve been in a state of quiet, suppressed worry over Warren Beatty‘s Rules Don’t Apply (20th Century Fox, 11.23) for nearly four weeks. As noted I’ve been chatting enjoyably with Beatty for a quarter-century and I feel real affection for the guy (and I always will), but I can’t wiggle around the fact that while the movie is certainly its own bird and reps a strong vision, it’s mainly a spotty, in-and-out thing.

I recognize that several critics are fans and I’m happy for that, and I’ve heard it’s definitely popular among certain Academy types — cool. I hope Rules does well commercially and that Warren lands a Best Actor nomination for his trouble, although I think he and his strategists should have gone for a Best Supporting Actor nom instead. Just my opinion.

(l. to r.) Lilly Collins, Alden Ehrenreich and Warren Beatty on the red carpet at Thursday’s AFI Fest premiere of Rules Don’t Apply.

Beatty has been telling everyone that Rules Don’t Apply isn’t a Howard Hughes biopic, and that it’s primarily a love story between a pair of 20something Hughes employees — Marla Mabrey, a virginal would-be actress played by Lily Collins, and Frank Forbes, a driver-assistant played by Alden Ehrenreich — who want each other but feel constrained by the sexual puritanism of the ’50s. But the film is a Howard Hughes film, no question, and Beatty’s performance as the eccentric billionaire is by far the strongest element.

You come away thinking about Beatty’s performance — he’s got the charisma, conviction, weirdness, authority — but hardly at all about Collins or Ehrenreich’s, due to their characters feeling thin and under-written and muffled. And while the movie feels like it’s using the conventions of farce to keep things peppy and funny, at the same time it seems a little afraid of playing it straight and plain. 

But Rules is engaging here and there and at times even approaches a kind of brilliance by way of a klutzy, off-center mentality. Which is to say…I don’t know how to put it. I’m scratching my head as I write this.

Rules Don’t Apply isn’t so much a “dramedy” as an arch, dialed-down farce that feels inspired here and there and at other times like a movie that never really takes flight. It’s a mix of conflicted and conflicting impulses and cross purposes, and yet is all of a curious piece. I saw it for a second time two nights ago, and I’m afraid I felt the same as I did after the first viewing in mid-October, which was “hmmm….in and out, not bad here and there, Warren is good, maybe Academy members will like it, crazy movie, some good scenes,” etc.

It feels turgid and constricted in some ways, and yet has a silly, loose and fuck-all tone at other times. A bent, tightly-sprung attitude. 

It’s been edited like a sonuvabitch — cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. Many scenes during the first 25% or one-third feel a bit choppy and abbreviated. Yes, that’s the way farces are usually paced. It reminded me at times of Ernst Lubitsch‘s Design for Living (that’s good) and at other times like Charlie Chaplin‘s The Countess From Hong Kong (don’t ask). And yes, I recognize that it’s personal to some degree in that Warren came from a somewhat repressed religious culture in the ’50s.

You can sense that a whole lot of editing (four are listed in the closing credits including the great Billy Weber) and a lot of thought went into it, and that it’s been worked and re-worked and re-worked some more. So it’s certainly interesting and occasionally funny but the tone is…what’s the right term? Pinched? Warren has always had an odd but very distinct sense of humor (the Vincent Gardenia “hats” sequence in Heaven Can Wait), and Rules certainly has this.

In at least half if not 60% of his scenes, Warren hides himself in darkness. A visual metaphor for the way Hughes was living or Warren looking to avoid the glare? I don’t know why he’d want to do that. He looks good for his age. All I can say is that an awful lot of this film is barely lighted.

Twice Lili and Alden use the phrase “rules don’t apply” to describe each other, and then she composes and sings a song about that phrase. If I’d been directing I’d have eliminated the “rules don’t apply” dialogue and the song but kept the title. Or I would’ve called it something else and 86’ed the dialogue but kept the song. Or I would have killed the song and the “rules” dialogue and the title and called the film….I don’t know, Ants In Your Pants.

Banana nut ice cream in the Nevada desert, man. Containers and containers of the stuff, and all from Baskin Robbins. You can’t see Rules Don’t Apply and not be influenced by that thought, that image. I for one have never tasted banana nut ice cream in my entire life.

Like I said, Warren’s Hughes is the heart of it — a portrait of a lonely eccentric loon who’s highly averse to face time with anyone anywhere. He’s a cagey, brilliant fellow whose eccentricities and compulsions have begun to overwhelm and control his life. But he’s not without passion or fear or amusement or spirit. Or a liking for downers. You could speculate that this version of Hughes reflects Warren in some ways, but the comparison wouldn’t get you very far. I think they had more in common with each other during their dashing pussy-hound days — the ’30s and ’40s for Hughes, the ’60s and ’70s for Beatty.

Born in ’05, Hughes was in his early ’50s in 1958, which is when most of the film takes place. (The end and the beginning happen in ’64.) Warren was in his late ’70s when the film was shot in the spring and summer of ’14. His Hughes looks mid to late 60ish for the most part.

The best scene is when Matthew Broderick, portraying a Hughes assistant named Levar Mathis, loses it in an argument with the boss. The second best scene is when Hughes chokes up about his daddy.

Rarely have so many top-grade, name-brand actors been so under-utilized. Alec Baldwin, as Hughes exec Robert Maheu, doesn’t get to do much — has maybe four minutes of screen time. Beefy, white-haired Martin Sheen wears a Blues Brothers/Reservoir Dogs suit in two or three scenes. I didn’t recognize Candace Bergen at first. Ed Harris has a single scene as a Fresno dad at the dinner table. Paul Sorvino is in a kind of press conference scene but you hardly notice him — he doesn’t even have a medium close-up, much less a line. Dabney Coleman is in the credits but you could’ve fooled me.

There’s a whole bit about sex and champagne that I shouldn’t talk about so why mention it in the first place?

I’ll just repeat that Rules Don’t Apply is a weird, sometimes giddy, oddly affecting film. I laughed two or three times. I smirked a lot. It feels a bit constipated but, again, it’s not without intrigue or merit.