"Hollywoodland," a new film about the mythmaking ability of the entertainment industry in a bygone era, plays a bit like an HBO biopic, which sounds like an insult, but lumping Allen Coulter's first feature in with an "RKO 281" or "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" isn't so bad.
"Hollywoodland" is intelligent, well-mounted and loaded with stars. It's also a bit wooden and stagy, never quite establishes a consistent pace, floundering in its attempts to be challenging and narratively fragmented.
Written by Paul Bernbaum, "Hollywoodland" juxtaposes two stories focusing on a pair of social strivers. In the past, we have George Reeves (Ben Affleck), star of television's "Adventures of Superman," found dead of an apparent suicide on June 16, 1959.
Reeves looks like a movie star, has the support of a powerful mistress (Diane Lane's Toni Mannix) and he appeared in "Gone With The Wind," but his career has stagnated due to personal problems and typecasting. In the second narrative, we meet Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a publicity-hungry private investigator who begins to suspect that Reeves' death may have been foul play. But who was behind it? Was it Reeves' older lover or her vicious husband Eddie (Bob Hoskins), a high-powered executive at MGM? He surely has the clout to make careers or end lives. Was it Reeves' young money-hungry girlfriend (Robin Tunney)? Was it any number of thugs and problem-solvers lurking in the underbelly beneath Tinseltown's glitz?
Bernbaum's supposition, one that can't necessarily be argued with, is that some four years before Kennedy's assassination, the death of George Reeves represented a loss of innocence for a generation, one of those pivotal moments where kids realize that their heroes are mortal. More than that, "Hollywoodland" depicts a transitional point in both the entertainment industry and the collective culture, making the suggestion that, in a sense, the distrust and upheaval of the '60s began with one moment involving a washed up television star.
Coulter, an Emmy-nominated veteran of several classic "Sopranos" episodes, clearly differentiates between the periods before and after Reeves' death. Reeves' world is visually softer and audibly quieter, while Simo's time is shot rougher with the early strains of rock-n-roll in the background. The men themselves are studies in contrast, with Reeves all gentile polish and Simo in casual disarray. Reeves' demise is presaged by his own decline in formality.
While those choices work on an intellectual level, the plot's balance rarely feels right. Whenever Reeves' story starts to get compelling, we have to leave him for long, uninvolving scenes with Simo, while Simo's most raw and revelatory moments are interrupted by Reeves. The filmmakers further complicate matters by throwing in several alternative theories on Reeves' death, different possibilities that are meant to mirror Simo's changing perception of Reeves. It's a lot of juggling for a two-hour movie and Coulter has difficulty sustaining any kind of cumulative momentum. "Hollywoodland" works great in short bursts, but can't hold together.
The individual scenes are able to breathe thanks to the fantastic cast. Despite a distracting make-up job that makes him look a lot like Paul Rudd, Affleck turns in a sympathetic performance, that can't help but be read as vaguely autobiographical. He's a man who wants respect and opportunities, but instead finds wealth and fame and dead-ends. Affleck's open-mouthed vulnerability -- largely AWOL since "Good Will Hunting" -- makes a welcome return. Affleck also works well with Lane, who makes one of those courageous-for-Hollywood choices to play her age and possibility older. Lane's Toni is used to getting what she wants, so when Reeves tries to slip away, she goes to naturalistic pieces.
Hoskins looks to be playing a scenery-chewing bigwig, but the actual love this man feels for his wife gives the character depth in this fine actor's hands. Because nobody else is likely to mention them, I feel inclined to salute two of my favorite under-appreciated TV actresses -- Caroline Dhavernas ("Wonderfalls") and Kathleen Robertson ("Beverly Hills, 90210"), who look great and display charisma suggesting they should both get more big-screen work.
"Hollywoodland" may not necessarily stand out on its own, but it has sufficient depth and texture that it could make a great double-bill with Brian DePalma's "Black Dahlia," which opens a week later. The two films, set a decade apart, are complementary portraits of the movie business and its ability to devour the innocent.