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Hollywoodland   C+

Focus Features / Miramax Films

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Allen Coulter
Writer: Paul Bernbaum
Cast: Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins, Lois Smith, Robin Tunney, Joe Spano, Molly Parker.

Review by Rob Vaux

The story of George Reeves -- who attained success playing Superman during television's golden era, only to commit suicide once fame discarded him -- remains one of Hollywood's most emblematic tragedies. Hollywoodland posits itself both as a biography of Reeves and a mystery exploring what really happened the night he died. The former works phenomenally well; the latter sputters and wheezes from the get-go. Director Allen Coulter has a sharp technique and a number of clever notions to bring this slice of historic noir to the screen, but his bifurcated plot structure divides the results cleanly down the middle.

The framing device begins after Reeves' death, as down-on-his-luck P.I. Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is hired by the actor's mother to ferret out the truth of her son's demise. She doesn't believe it was suicide for a minute; he was a big star, she claims, with everything to live for. Despite her rose-colored assessment of his mental state, she may have a case, and a number of prominent suspects quickly make themselves known. There's Reeves' fiancé, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), an obvious gold-digger who was in the house hosting a party when he shot himself upstairs; Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), Reeves' jilted lover of many years who was responsible for much of the success he enjoyed; and Mannix's mogul husband Eddie (Bob Hoskins), who had reached a certain understanding with her regarding marital infidelity, but still cared when she was hurt or slighted. All of them had motive, all of them had means, and cloying details -- such as multiple bullet holes found at the scene or the fact that Lemmon took 40 minutes to call the police after she heard the shot -- suggest something far more sinister than an unhappy man succumbing to despair.

Coulter does his homework in presenting this stew, evoking 1950s Los Angeles with fastidious accuracy and adding that shabby, shadow-darkened look which all good noir demands. He also finds some nice riffs on potential stereotypes, most notably in Simo, whose rumpled gumshoe comes dressed in intriguing trappings (an office in a cheap poolside motel room instead of the usual venetian-blinds décor, for example). And yet, the mystery he pursues remains curiously uncompelling. Brody, normally a fine actor, seems to sleepwalk through most of it, asking dull questions and affecting a disheveled nonchalance that feels more like laziness than ennui. The facts come out in haphazard and confusing ways, compounded by Rashomon-style sequences that reveal what might have happened from a number of different perspectives -- most of which muddle far more than they enthrall.

The frustration stands in almost perfect opposition to the film's other half, delivered in flashback and charting Reeves' course from handsome bit player to beloved icon to has-been. These sequences shine with the energy and nostalgia that the rest of the movie seeks in vain, illuminating the story far more exuberantly than Brody's meander through the detritus. The actors deserve a good deal of credit. Affleck's appearance initially feels like a casting stunt, but he soon sheds his star image for a cunning evocation of Reeves' mannerisms (his eyes, in particular, are uncanny). More importantly, he grasps the man's quixotic destiny quite well. Like many figures of his type, Reeves had looks and charisma, but only middling talent -- coasting through small roles and B-pictures while believing himself worthy of something better. Such figures rarely realize their good fortune when it smacks them in the face: in this case in the form of Toni, who takes an immediate shine to Reeves and opens the door to the role that made him famous. Lane eats characters like hers for breakfast, brilliantly embodying a wondrous, glowing woman -- ten times any other person in the room -- who has been callously tossed aside for the unpardonable sin of turning 40.

Together, the two performers paint a sad yet gripping picture of the dark hustle that constitutes success in Hollywood. Reeves takes the job on Superman almost as a lark, and when the show becomes a hit, he is rocketed to instant recognition. Yet he makes very little money from the endeavor, and considers the role supremely beneath him. He never recognizes the look of shining adoration in the children he meets; he doesn't appreciate how happy he's made them, or what an inspiration his portrayal has become. He sees only a joke in long underwear, saddled with uncomfortable working conditions that occasionally turn outright dangerous (such as the now-legendary incident in which a small boy produces a real gun in order to see the bullets bounce off "Superman's" chest). And when the show ends, he has nothing, his career dependent upon tidbits thrown by Mannix and forever anchored to the red cape that made it. Coulter and Affleck have their finger right on the pulse of the man's dilemma: revealing his growing despair as he confronts the harsh truth that he's simply not a very good actor... and that Superman is the best that one such as he can ever hope for.

Would that it translated over to the remainder of the film. The best parts of the Brody-based half accentuate the biographical elements: Simo's young son brooding over the death of his four-color hero, Reeves' deluded mother insisting that he was an "important star," and the like. The rest, unfortunately, merely marks time while waiting for the real story to get going again, and at 127 minutes, the wait can become exasperating. It doesn't sink Hollywoodland -- certainly not for those interested in the case, or who want to be reminded how good Affleck can be when he has the right role -- but there's an awful lot of work involved in finding that meaty center. Half the film is brilliant, half disposable. If only cutting it down the middle were an acceptable solution.

Review published 09.07.2006.

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