A destitute private detective, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) finds the perfect chance to get publicized while investigating the bizarre suicide of actor George Reeves (Ben Affleck), known around the world from his work on television's "The Adventures of Superman." Challenged by each new clue from mistresses (Diane Lane), studio heads (Bob Hoskins), and Reeves's mother (Lois Smith), Simo starts to recognize that many important people don't want Reeves's death investigated too closely.
The alleged suicide of George Reeves remains a highly contested staple of Hollywood history. The mystery surrounding his death makes a great starter pistol for "Hollywoodland," taking the details of Reeves's life and fictionalizing their eye-opening affect on a private detective.
"Sopranos" director Allen Coulter makes a smoky transition to the big screen with this bit of film noir, and he recreates the era well, drinking in the cocktail atmosphere of industry schmoozing, and exploring the cancer at the heart of Southern Californian suburbia. Coulter has a lot of material to sort through, and the template is "Chinatown" on a stricter budget. While he doesn't have the money to spend on a lavish production (fans of L.A. underbelly sagas might find this film a little cramped), Coulter's been given a gift in this incredible and lurid tale of an iconic actor at the end of his rope.
Curious, though, is his choice to split the movie directly down the middle. To best pull apart and investigate Reeves's death, screenwriter Paul Bernbaum pays equal attention to both Reeves and Simo, drawing parallels between the men, and using the private detective as a way to cherry pick parts of the actor's life to dramatize. This is not a bio-pic of George Reeves, though his rise and fall are both given plenty of screentime and they happen to be the most fascinating parts of the movie.
Through Ben Affleck's pitch-perfect work as the tragic talent, "Hollywoodland" enjoys a creative fertility when it focuses on the Superman years, and on Reeves's inability to shake off the stigma of having played a beloved superhero. Coulter swings the cape and tights in front of Reeves like a noose, looking at the instant success of the show with children, but also keeping an eye on the weariness the actor felt when the role choked his chances at the idealized Hollywood success he wanted for himself. Affleck conveys this sadness and pain expertly, giving his Reeves feet of lead as he's forced to humiliate himself suiting up for years of the series, or even for dreaded personal appearances (one of the film's crowning scenes of horror and hilarity).
Compared to the recreation of Reeves's descent into desperation, Simo's gumshoe routine doesn't dance to the same beat. Partially sidelined by Adrien Brody's overeager period acting, Simo's detective yarn doesn't carry the same insistence or color of Reeves's life, and the film feels constipated trying to dream up ways to further Simo's investigation and backstory. "Hollywoodland" uses Simo to avoid many of the formulaic traps laid for bio-pics, but seeing how incredible Affleck is and how well Coulter stages the "Superman" wonder years, it's a shame they didn't go the obvious route.
Bernbaum has some captivating theories on who might've killed Reeves, and Coulter smoothly weaves them into the framework of the film, but the line between fact and fiction is blurred heavily in "Hollywoodland." What's more important is the depiction of Reeves as an actor who couldn't escape his greatest triumph, and his slide toward hopelessness is one of the most heartbreaking stories to come out of Tinseltown's glamour years.
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