Director: Allen Coulter
Starring: Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins, Lois Smith, Robin Tunney
Running Time: 126 min.
*** (out of ****)
Sometimes a subject is so interesting it can carry an entire film, even if said film doesn't necessarily live up to expectations. George Reeves, star of the 1950's television series, The Adventures of Superman, is such a subject. You get the impression a dozen diferent kind of movies could have been made about him, but what we get here is a murder mystery whodunnit without a resolution. Of course, it can't have a resolution since they never really found out whether Reeves shot himself or was murdered.
Hollywoodland makes a good case for the latter and hopefully puts to bed once and for all that stupid urban legend that Reeves jumped out of his window thinking he could fly like Superman. Ultimately though, his death was ruled a suicide and the case was closed. This material screams for a biopic not a murder mystery, but I'm recommending it anyway and that's in no small part due to the performance of Ben Affleck, who delivers some of the most nuanced work of his career as Reeves. It's easy to argue he was robbed of a best supporting actor Oscar nomination.
When actor George Reeves (Affleck) is found dead from a bullet wound to the head in his Hollywood Hills home, the Los Angeles police department rule it a suicide and close the case. However, his mother (Lois Smith) knows something's very wrong and hires private detective Louis Simo (Oscar winner Adrien Brody) to investigate the mysterious circumstances sorrounding his death and delve into his sordid personal life, which included an affair with Toni Mannix (Oscar nominee Diane Lane)) wife of famed MGM studio boss Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Through flashbacks we see how that relationship began and eventually crumbled, leaving Toni angry and bitter. What's interesting about his affair with Toni is that her husband knows everything, but has absolutely no problem with it unless he hurts her. Eventually he does. Toni is older and that age difference ultimately causes the relationship's undoing as Reeves begins to tire of her matronly demeanor and crave someone younger and more exciting.
Enter aspiring New York actress Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) who eventually becomes his fiancee and second potential suspect in his death. When Reeves abandons Toni an infuriated Eddie Mannix, who's a big name with big connections, is the third suspect in what could potentially be a homocide. As Louis edges closer to the truth he uncovers more about Reeves, and himself, than he ever thought possible, personally affecting him on levels he didn't expect. The movie tries to relate those personal struggles with his separated wife and son to Reeves' problems, but it comes off forced, not quite connecting like it should. As a murder mystery the film doesn't quite hit the mark either because we can't have any kind of closure on Reeves' death since no one ever found out what happened. Instead the movie is held together by the examination of him as a person and how his own celebrity caused him to self destruct. All of this is brilliantly brought to life by Affleck's surprisingly complex performance.
Reeves is depicted as a really good guy who's only wish was to be taken seriously as an actor. Unfortunately his big break came as Superman, which made him a laughing stock to his peers and prevented him from being hired for anything else, causing his personal and professional life to unravel. There's a wonderful scene in the film at the premiere of From Here To Eternity when Reeves shows up onscreen in a small role opposite Burt Lancaster. The entire theater bursts in laughter and erupts with Superman cat calls. Humiliated, all Reeves can do is cower in his seat. Affleck plays the entire scene just right. He doesn't say anything, but we can tell from the look on his face that Reeves' entire world just came crashing down and he's forever burdened by the role that made him a star.
What's interesting is that when we see scenes of the filming of the show and Affleck in the costume, we can see the humiliation on his face and also understand why he'd be ridiculed. Let's face it: The Superman character is kind of a joke since it's always been exploited by Hollywood just to make a quick buck no matter how talented (Christopher Reeve) or untalented (Brandon Routh) the actor playing him was. It's virtually impossible for any actor to ever be taken seriously again after playing the part. However, as much as this burned Reeves up inside, he took his responsibility as a role model to children seriously. In the movie's best scene, he has to talk down a small boy with a loaded gun pointed right at him. How he does this without hinting in any way to him that he really isn't Superman is amazing. Had the film explored these themes further instead of emulating an E! True Hollywood Story, the film would have been unforgettable.
After years of starring in junk (and just now recently admitting to it), Affleck finally finds in George Reeves the role that brings out his strengths as an actor. There's no doubt he saw similarities between himself and Reeves as both men desperately wanted to overcome their image to be taken seriously as an actor, battling both personal demons and having tabloid romances. But for the first time in years he looks relaxed in a role that he completely owns, which should hopefully lead him to make more interesting choices moving forward.
While the film doesn't completely succeed drawing parallels between the life of Reeves and the man investigating his death, Brody's performance as the embattled Louis isn't to blame. He does good work here, as toward the end it becomes clear he's ironically the only person who actually cares for Reeves as a person, not as a celebrity. Brody will never look like your typical leading man, but every time out he gives it everything he has and often gives great performances in films unworthy of it. Lane, Hopkins and Tunney all give solid supporting turns.
This is the directorial debut of Allen Coulter, who's best known for his work on televison's The Sopranos and Sex and the City and he does an admirable job capturing the look and feel of 1950's Hollywood in all it's glamour. Hollywoodland is a good movie that could have been great if it spent more time examining George Reeves the man rather than trying to pointlessly unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death.