Movie review: 'Hollywoodland'

EntertainmentMoviesSuperman (fictional character)TelevisionDeathCelebritiesGeorge Reeves

3½ stars (out of four)

Like George Reeves, the tall, dark, handsome and frustrated actor who played Superman on early television and on screen in "Superman and the Mole-Men," the new film "Hollywoodland" may have a hard time establishing itself in the marketplace. Directed by Allen Coulter, a TV alum ("Sex and the City," "The Sopranos") making an impressive feature film debut, the picture doesn't whip up the usual blather or pathos. It's better than that.

It unfolds in a confidential key, and it's very observant in the ways the omnipresent film industry seeps into everyone's pores in L.A., land of the rising smog and the perfumed scent of highly compensated failure. With so much studio-bankrolled fear and loathing, plus just enough outrageous success to make the place seem glamorous, Hollywood--Old Hollywood, when people had manners--couldn't help but go crazy and start shooting once in a while. "Hollywoodland" treats its subjects, including Reeves and his much-debated death at age 45, not as larger-than-life or pathetically smaller-than-life, but simply life-sized.

The movie re-creates two distinct L.A. eras, the 1940s/early '50s and, following Reeves' probable suicide, the years 1959 and 1960. Whether "Hollywoodland" works for you will depend on your feelings about the prickly central character. Reeves is not that character, though he's a strong second. Ben Affleck plays the man who played Superman. Top-billed Adrien Brody, however, takes the lead as a fictional private eye, Louis Simo, investigating the circumstances surrounding Reeves' suicide.

With his floridly wavy hair and gum-chewing gumshoe act, Simo is the opposite of studio-groomed B-lister Reeves, despite their shared lust for the spotlight. Early on, in a scene set at a classic '50s diner, Simo gets grief from his fellow private dicks. Dig him, says one, relating the poseur to the tough guy who played Mike Hammer in "Kiss Me Deadly," the most vicious of all film noirs: "Nobody told him the world didn't need two Ralph Meekers."

Reeves was, in the parlance of the coroner's office, an "indicated suicide." Taking his cue from actual events, screenwriter Paul Bernbaum has Reeves' mother (Lois Smith, a Steppenwolf Theatre veteran and a wonderful, tough bird here) hiring Simo to find out who killed her son and then covered up the murder.

"Hollywoodland" is a film of intricately layered flashbacks. On one track, in the early 1940s Reeves meets Toni Mannix (Diane Lane, who really does have one of those great Golden Age faces and is a real actress to boot). She's the wife of MGM production head Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins, subtle in his menace), ready to spend her tolerant mob-connected husband's money on setting her new boyfriend up in a house up in Benedict Canyon. It's a nice life, though Reeves longs for more on the career front.

Then, just past the midpoint of the century, comes "Superman." Reeves balks. His agent (Jeffrey DeMunn) urges him to "cash the check," even if it's a "dirt-cheap kiddie show." He does, and unexpectedly Reeves becomes trapped by his own superhero.

Reeves' level of fame was peculiar and not uncommon in Hollywood--not immense, not minor, not lasting. "Hollywoodland" is just the right size to accommodate him, as it goes its own way with the Simo story. As the private eye digs deeper into the Reeves case, Simo draws the ire of Mannix and his studio "fixer," Howard Strickling (Joe Spano, perfect in his courtly intimations of unlimited clout). Simo's already messy life starts unraveling. Estranged from his wife (the terrific Molly Parker of "Deadwood"), "Superman"-devoted son (a jug-eared wonder played by the equally terrific Zach Mills) and suburban Van Nuys middle-class existence, Simo formulates three scenarios for Reeves' death. One involves Mannix's wife, distraught over Reeves having dumped her for a starlet (Robin Tunney).

In its multiple-solution and flashback stratagems, "Hollywoodland" recalls "Reversal of Fortune." What you don't get in "Hollywoodland" is the irresistible scenery-munching of the Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close variety. Brody, playing a largely unsympathetic character, refuses to make Simo into a hero; he's busy, and effective, making him a character. Affleck and Lane, playing real-life characters who essentially trained themselves into becoming classy and well-spoken, interact in a way that's slightly arch and heightened, as if they're play-acting at being adults. Affleck lacks Reeves' gravitas and surly charisma, and he doesn't have a great speaking voice for this sort of elocution-minded Hollywood specimen. But he's pretty good all the same.

With an uncredited assist from playwright/screenwriter Howard Korder, "Hollywoodland" features some tart, lively banter and welcome comedic touches. (There's an amusing scene where the Mannixes dine together with their respective paramours.) The picture loses steam in its final third, as it winds its way toward screenwriter Bernbaum's final and (the way it's emphasized) most favored answer to the mystery of Reeves' death. As with most speculative Hollywood sin-and-death tales, "Hollywoodland" ignores certain biographical truths (Reeves' early marriage, for example) while buying into other myths, such as the reason Reeves' screen time in "From Here to Eternity" was so scant. In truth the part wasn't trimmed down because preview audiences hooted Superman off the screen. Audiences did have trouble accepting Reeves without tights and a great big S, but his part in "Eternity" was small to begin with.

So it's not a definitive Reeves biography. It's not trying to be. "Hollywoodland" is after something more off-center, and more interesting. The style of this picture, made in the economical $15- to $20-million-dollar range, is one of low-keyed authority. Director Coulter favors long but not showy takes, allowing actors to truly interact. (Affleck and Lane share a fine getting-to-know-you scene on the Pacific beach outside the Santa Monica Beach Club, which, like much of the film, was actually shot in Toronto.) The film's details, such as the glimpses of the dogged, aging bodybuilder outside Simo's apartment, add to the texture.

Wait a week for "The Black Dahlia" if you want a Hollywood-themed film noir thrashing around in search of a tone and a style. For something more modest in scope but sure of itself, this sharp-witted portrait of L.A. strivers is more like it.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'Hollywoodland'

Directed by Allen Coulter; screenplay by Paul Bernbaum; cinematography by Jonathan Freeman; edited by Michael Berenbaum; production design by Leslie McDonald; music by Marcelo Zarvos; produced by Glenn Williamson. A Focus Features release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:06. MPAA rating: R (for language, some violence and sexual content).

Louis Simo - Adrien Brody

George Reeves - Ben Affleck

Toni Mannix - Diane Lane

Eddie Mannix - Bob Hoskins

Helen Bessolo - Lois Smith

Leonore Lemmon - Robin Tunney

Laurie Simo - Molly Parker

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