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Warren Beatty’s ‘Rules Don’t Apply’ tanks at the box office

The $2m the movie brought in from more than 2,000 US theatres was one of the worst returns ever for a release that wide

Image Credit: AP
Small town beauty queen and aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) finds herself attracted to her personal driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), even though it defies their employer Howard Hughes’ #1 rule: no employee is allowed to have an intimate relationship with a contract actress.

Warren Beatty is famous for his perfectionism, which explains why it takes so long for him to make a movie. He’s been toying with the idea of a Howard Hughes biopic for decades, and finally the anticipation for “Untitled Warren Beatty Movie” is over.

Rules Don’t Apply opened in the US on November 23, rolling into theatres just in time for the holiday weekend, and it utterly tanked. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the $2 million (Dh7.3 million) the movie brought in from more than 2,000 theatres was one of the worst returns ever for a release that wide.

What happened? You can’t blame it on publicity. Not only were the ads hard to miss, but Beatty, who’s 79, has been ubiquitous recently, sitting down with the New York Times (for a six-hour interview), Today, Vanity Fair, and even the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) to gin up interest. In all of those sit-downs, one aspect of Beatty’s past inevitably cropped up: Before his marriage to Annette Bening in 1992, he was a prolific romancer of women. His creative output wasn’t nearly so abundant, however. Since 1978, he’s directed five features. The last time he starred in a movie was 15 years ago.

Has that hurt his reputation as a serious filmmaker? Quite possibly. Hollywood tends to reward a fast output regardless of quality, and the directors who have succeeded into their 60s, 70s and 80s share a penchant for extreme productivity — which lessens the impact from a flop.

Look at 80-year-old Woody Allen, for example. He makes a movie every year, though they’re not all winners. Beatty, meanwhile, has a much better average with fewer movies.

Rules Don’t Apply had one thing going for it. Like all of Beatty’s directorial efforts, it was pleasantly risky. Tonally and thematically disparate, the movie starts out as a romantic comedy between two young people aspiring for greatness during Hollywood’s golden age, before shifting gears and turning into a farce about reclusive magnate Hughes (played by Beatty). Critics were mostly unimpressed, though most were also apologetic about having to take the Hollywood legend down a peg. Viewers weren’t much kinder, giving the movie a B- CinemaScore, barely better than what Bad Santa 2 received.

There’s a saying that most writers are familiar with: Perfect is the enemy of good. A long wait between films raises the stakes, making a misfire look especially bad.

Beatty, for all the press he’s done, doesn’t control the message. He’s still, after all these years, known as a lothario — and better recognised as an actor than a director. Had he kept making movies all these years, perhaps reporters would be less interested in his decades-old love life.

Rules Don’t Apply could seal his fate and end his career, but it doesn’t have to. If we’ve learned anything from all the productive directors, it’s that second — and third and fourth — chances abound.