Hollywoodland tries to tackle the traumatic headline "Superman Kills Self" in a provocative look at Tinseltown in the 1950's.
The title can appear to be awkward for those not into the glamor capital. Allen Coulter's uneven, sometimes involving film noir is heavy into the mystery of George Reeves' death in his Hollywood home. The investigation framing it all looks at many possibilities, including what was reported as a suicide in 1959. Maybe the screenplay by newcomer Paul Bernbaum could have been more vital as a limited biopic of a jaded actor coming to the end of his run, though it earns plaudits in its presentation of a stylish drama.
Coulter and Bernbaum respectably juggle much action from the present (the time when Reeves was found dead of a gunshot wound while at home at night with friends) and the past. That was even before "Superman" became a big hit on the small screen, notably with young boys. Some viewers may be challenged for awhile in adapting to the narrative technique in parallel fashion, but most will recognize the toplining performers, especially Ben Affleck and Diane Lane.
Affleck is interestingly cast as the puzzling Reeves, and is credited behind Adrien Brody and Lane. Maybe the down-on-his-luck actor is more handsome than his real counterpart, but he sympathetically plays the role of a guileless fellow trying to make it in the "A" list of entertainers. He landed small parts in Gone With The Wind and From Here To Eternity, the latter of which has a clip altered to fit Affleck in with Burt Lancaster. But, being identified as the "Man of Steel" made it extremely difficult to expand his horizons.
The film's dogged approach really puts one in the position of Brody's Louis Simo, a private investigator (fictionalized by Coulter and Bernbaum) estranged from his wife Laurie (Molly Parker). Simo, in the late 50's, is washed-up and unhappy, as probably was the case with Reeves (in his mid-40's). Simo thinks foul play was a distinct possibility and gets help from Reeves' distant, fragile, yet decisive mother (Lois Smith) to start greasing some palms. Especially in his visits to the crime scene and the morgue. Having a son very distraught by a fallen icon whom he explains is an actor is also a bit of a motivating factor.
The unchronological trappings show the success and decline of an actor whose dreams may not have included being an idol for kids. Hollywoodland begins to fascinate with his meeting and open relationship with older Toni Mannix (Lane), wife of an MGM vice president, once a showgirl and chief "fixer" Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins of Unleashed). Reeves becomes her lover and boy-toy, as well as getting quite an upgrade in his standard of living. No mention is made of how much or little he got during his famous role, but Toni bought him a home for $12,000. One observes the productions that Reeves was connected to that sometimes had the quality of something made by Ed Wood. An ironic flying sequence has the brown-and-gray suited man "faster than a speeding bullet" taking a bad fall onto a wood floor after the gimbal operator loses control.
The demeaning, powerful Eddie is the means of Reeves' transformation into an overnight sensation. The rather intense gumshoe in Simo uncovers a more sleazy truth, fueled by jealousy and betrayal. Is Reeves eaten away by secrets and lies? Well, definitely not in a haunting way like what was manifested in Bob Crane in Auto Focus. However, there could have been more hoorays for Hollywoodland had the sketchy detective work again reminding one of the often mentioned Rashomon been lifted or sharply minimized to hone in on the melancholy after the adulation and fifteen minutes of fame. The dramatic potential of having Simo try to recover himself personally (with the aid of a "secretary") through scenarios of what may have happened, including an underworld hit, doesn't do justice to Reeves who would never get a hand at directing. The scales are weighed unfavorably towards Simo in a manner to juxtapose how both deal with adversity.
If Brody isn't that charismatic beyond the surface to impress, what definitely works is the underpinnings when it comes to Reeves and Toni, and also a bit with Eddie. Hoskins packs the movie executive with gruff authority and Affleck is rather suave in his casting against type as the ingenue gets embroiled in greed and deception. Lane showcases a similar range to her Unfaithful performance, as she sophisticatedly demonstrates someone trying to hold on to the past ("I've got seven good years left") and the passion of being scorned. Robin Tunney has more screentime later on as sassy gold-digger Leonore Lemmon, Reeves' hedonistic fiancee at his home that fateful night. And, Joe Spano (TV's "Hill Street Blues") provides unexpected rich backup as a sharp, respected public relations man under Mannix.
Coulter arguably creates a rich tapestry in conveying the disparate milieus of Reeves and Simo with a few amusing scenes (and one disturbing one when Reeves in Superman costume has to dissuade a fan about testing his "bullet-proof" power) during what looks to get more taut and bracing. Yet, something feels missing aside from the efforts on a modest budget to vividly realize the period, from the cars, parties, clothes, even the "Etch-a-Sketch" Simo gives to his son.
It's not that Hollywoodland is too short, because it could have used some judicious editing to reach the climax and ending it needed. Knowing that the real-life, less photogenic detective perished during the investigation might start to explain the desire to put a cynical ambiguity on classic Hollywood during an important, transitional period in its history.