The film largely revolves around the lives of three characters - Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), and Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) - in 1960s Hollywood. Marla is a young, devout Baptist woman from the backwoods of Virginia who travels to Hollywood with her mother (Annette Bening) with hopes to find work as an actress under the wealthy but elusive Howard Hughes for RKO Studio. Meanwhile, Frank serves as Marla's driver, also working under Hughes, and alongside his closest friend, Levar Mathis (Matthew Broderick).
Then there's Hughes himself, who remains a recluse for much of the first-half hour of the film, giving orders before going back on them and sending his associates on a goose-chase to satisfy him despite him never being satisfied. He winds up getting romantically involved with Marla, as does Frank at one point in time, but one man is victim to his swollen ego while the other can't decide how involved he wants to be in Marla's life when he has a fiancee (Taissa Farmiga). Meanwhile, Marla can't decide what she wants at all, so much of the film is the three characters trying to figure out their place in life as well as the relationships maintain, or at least they think they do, with others around them.
At two hours long, Rules Don't Apply is utterly infested with characters and cameos from the likes of Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and Ed Harris, most of whom don't do a lot for the plot besides bring in another undeveloped or faceless character. At times, Beatty seems as if he's trying to develop a miniseries, and this is the inevitable factor of a film that's allegedly been in development for 40 years. One has so much knowledge, facts, characters, directions, and tones they can pack into such a project, and naturally they try and do it all, and the result is an unbalanced and frequently sloppy film that seems as if it's covering a lot of ground when it's really running itself and the audience in circles.
Consider the pacing of the picture, which feels off most of the time no matter what time or place we are set. Some scenes, like the ones between Frank and Marla that exist to show intimacy, are stretched out for a lengthy period of time, but during the third-act, it's like Beatty and company have a time quota they have to meet all of a sudden, leading them to rush through climactic situations and disrupting our sense of place. The element of graceful narrative pacing is gone, and when we do get an extended period of time with the characters, it's as if they're talking around things and operating in a strange, melodramatic manner that handicaps their ability to resonate. It's peculiar, and if the sheer talent of Ehrenreich, Collins, especially in her drunken or mystified romantic state, and of course Beatty and all his charm, weren't on display, this film would be an unbearable slog to endure.
What saves Rules Don't Apply from being a complete disaster is just how personal this film seems to be for Beatty himself. Beatty and the way he draws his Hughes character in this film always seem to be contemplative, focused on something, maybe even something unobtainable. Hughes's fondness for little kids, such as the three rambunctious rugrats that run amok in his building one day that he attends to when they get away from their mother. In one early scene, Hughes is disgusted by the sight of a child, but as he gets a bit older and more worn, maybe he starts to see, in some way, that they're the future and that it's their time to shine. Given that a large part of Beatty's absence these past fifteen years was due to him raising his own children, the focus on children throughout this entire film shouldn't be glossed over.
Aside from the diehard Beatty fans - and trust me, they do still exist - I can't see most general audiences appreciating Rules Don't Apply except on some very reserved levels. The film functions in the same kind of esoteric way Beatty has always operated, that his other films like Reds and Dick Tracy more appropriately and successfully communicated (keep in mind, they were also assisted by the time in which they were released as well). While many things are admirable, including the beautiful costume and set design, there is also a lot here that either falls flat or doesn't work to its potential, and also shows what happens when a career lays dormant for over a decade and a handful of producers and editors dig their hands into a project that's been in development longer than many of these actors have been alive.