By David Elliott
APPETIZER: Reviews of Rules Don’t Apply and LovingRules Don’t Apply
I suppose that Rules Don’t Apply is Warren Beatty’s swan song at 79 – but this is quite a bull swan, and often a funny one. When a movie has a clever script (Beatty), inventive direction (Beatty), splendid photography (Caleb Deschanel), ace production design (Jeannine Oppewall), a wonderfully diverse soundtrack (from Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin” to the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth), a gifted and game cast, lovely streaks of period footage, and a bold, larking spirit, then the movie ought to be good. And so, by my lights, this is.
You need to know and care a little about the Howard Hughes myth, or mystique, or vapor trail. Hughes produced movies, though his big income was from aviation (his passion) and oil drilling (inheritance). As Hughes, Beatty doesn’t reach for the rafters like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator, but he is the funniest Hughes since Jason Robards in Melvin and Howard. Partly due to his age limits, Beatty has compressed the wild Hughes saga to wedge between 1958 and 1964, bringing forward the ’40s “scandal” about his huge wooden plane, the Spruce Goose, and pulling back the “scandal” of the phony Hughes diary (1971; see 2006’s The Hoax). Few young viewers will notice these time mutations, mostly because not very many will be attending this film. But the picture is more than an old movie star’s last vanity gift to himself.
To brace himself as Hughes (sometimes the smartest guy in the room, but increasingly a loonybird), Beatty got two budding stars: Alden Ehrenreich as Frank, a foxy chauffeur in Howard’s driver pool, ascending upward (although scared of flight); and Lily Collins as Marla, a doe-eyed, Southern Baptist virgin recruited into Hughes’s harem of bunkered, wannabe starlets, women on pay but often without roles. Ehrenreich is appealing and sharp, but Collins gives the movie its sexy tingle and vital anchor. Even when flummoxed by Hughes, she seems to be finding a future by sheer force of personality. Collins has screwball spunk, like much of the movie, and her brisk wising-up is a major contribution.
In a charmingly vintage L.A. (plus London, Vegas, Acapulco, Managua) that Beatty clearly recalls with nostalgia, yet never stupidly, we notice many talents: Annette Bening, Candice Bergen, Steve Coogan, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Oliver Platt plus Matthew Broderick, terrific as an executive stooge (his "I once had a life" is perfect). But it was the crafty Beatty who most held my interest, by holding his long career and late fatherhood and Hughes fixation and politics up to a light of bemused inspection. He stays on the right side of fond caricature, and his direction is supple, imaginative, often surprising. Beatty is still the brave adventurer who reached for glory with Bonnie and Clyde, Mickey One, Shampoo, Bulworth, Reds and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
If you don't get it, Rules Don’t Apply may seem, like the aging Hughes, loopy. If you do, it is a humming coil of pleasure. When Hughes sits munching a burger, warmly gazing up at his big, beloved Goose by moonlight, you know that you’re somewhere quite special. This odd, bravura movie makes the year’s other Hollywood nostalgia kits, the Coen Bros.’s Hail, Caesar! and Woody Allen’s Café Society, seem a little tame, a little tidy, a little tired.
LovingMovie-making excitement is never the goal of Loving, from talented director-writer Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter, Midnight Special). With sober, earnest fidelity, Nichols has turned a history tale into, well, a history lesson. It’s about the Lovings: white, working-class Richard (Joel Edgerton) and his black wife, Mildred (Ruth Negga). Raised among blacks, Richard is devoid of prejudice, a man of few words but dense and tense with feeling. Edgerton, with his solemn, homespun gravity, has a remarkably spare expressiveness (like Henry Fonda in Gideon’s Trumpet). Most decisive actions come from big-eyed Mildred, who hires an eager ACLU lawyer once the old “miscegenation” (race-mixing) law chases them from rural Virginia. With their kids they sneak back to continue the quiet struggle, and in 1967 their Supreme Court victory kills the old racial laws on marriage.
Rich in homespun ambience, finely acted (including Nick Kroll as the lawyer and Michael Shannon as a Life photographer), at times so soft-spokenly Southern that it’s a little hard to follow, Loving could use more juice and crackle and candor. It becomes a case study, although touchingly human. Dick Loving was a mason, a virtuoso brick-layer. As filmer, Nichols seems here to be practicing the same trade. His movie is a sort of Hallmark brick, a valentine to moral masonry. (By the way, who else recalls Irvin Kershner’s intimately fine drama Loving, from 1970, with George Segal and Eva Marie Saint doing top work?)
SALAD (A List)Here are my Ten Favorite Warren Beatty Movies, in order of favor, with year and director: Shampoo (Hal Ashby, 1975), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971), Rules Don’t Apply (Beatty, 2016), Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), Bulworth (Beatty, 1998), Reds (Beatty, 1981), Bugsy (Barry Levinson, 1991), All Fall Down (John Frankenheimer, 1962), Mickey One (Arthur Penn, 1965), The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (Jose Quintero, 1961).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
During WWII, FDR asked his fan Welles to undertake a secret mission, but Orson said wife Rita Hayworth wouldn’t believe him. So Roosevelt called her, and sure enough, “Hedda Hopper, sensing a possible extramarital affair, kept pressing Rita for details (and) in her column the next day, Hedda announced to millions of her readers that the President of the United States had called Rita about the special work Orson was doing for him.” Evidently, he served his hero well. (From Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)As New York City’s most personal and colorful bus tour guide, Tim “Speed” Levitch sometimes let the facts fly: “Factual promiscuity rankled management. ‘Speed has declared war on historical accuracy,’ (director) Bennett Miller told me in 1998. ‘He really believes that the emotions, not the facts, dictate the truth.’ But though the Empire State’s height kept changing, ‘he always caught the spirit of it.” (From the Timothy Levitch/The Cruise chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, ripe for purchase from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Giulietta Masina is night worker Cabiria, Nights of Cabiria (Rialto Pictures, 1957; director Federico Fellini, cinematographer Aldo Tonti).
For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.