Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Director: Allen Coulter
Screenwriters: Paul Bernbaum
Starring: Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane
Hollywoodland is a noir-ish “true story” mystery with a real undercurrent of sadness, and an interesting exercise in speculation. Those who know what happened to George Reeves aren’t telling, but that hasn’t stopped writer Paul Bernbaum and director Allen Coulter from trying to dramatize just how the trajectory of his career — sometimes triumphant but largely tragic — led to a bullet in his head. The film purports to have no answers, yet it strongly suggests — almost screams — that the circumstances, as it sees them, make the official line of “suicide” highly unlikely.
I just got back from Telluride where I saw Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, another film that takes the life of a real public figure and uses it to transcend mere biography. I like this approach; biopics are boring, and famous people aren’t necessarily interesting just because they’re famous. Hollywoodland doesn’t quite reach the interpretive heights of being an “imaginary portrait” — most notably, it acquiesces to the “unsolved mystery” aspect of the real story, concluding on as ambiguous a note as possible. But it embellishes plenty, too, and well: the story evinces all sorts of juicy themes like the value of truth and the temptation of fantasy, and works in some classic suspense, as well.
Coulter begins by inventing a character: Adrien Brody’s Louis Simo, a depressed private detective reduced to tailing the wife of a clearly deranged and paranoid man — at least until he stumbles on the possibility that ex-Superman George Reeves may not have put a bullet in his own head, a suspicion harbored by his reeling mother. His first instinct is to treat this more as a story than as a case — he does his best to stir up a three-ring circus, both in the hopes of outing some secrets and attracting some publicity, and as a character opines later in the film, “in publicity, what’s true or false doesn’t really matter.” But as Simo realizes that the story as told doesn’t quite add up, the case becomes more than an opportunity for advancement.
The film leaps between Simo’s investigation and Reeves’ career. Reeves is played by Ben Affleck, which absolutely terrifies most people contemplating seeing Hollywoodland, but it shouldn’t, at least too much. At this point, Affleck brings enough baggage to the film that when he is in “charming” mode watching him is a little uncomfortable, but the role also requires a serious streak of melancholy, and the actor makes good on this. His performance makes the various possibilities suggested by the plot not only conceivable, but emotionally plausible. At times, Hollywoodland plays out the possibilities on the screen in hypothetical fashion, and it is to the credit of both the screenplay and Affleck’s performance that they all seem to fit.
The whole “Superman” angle adds a cruel irony to the entire affair, of course, one that the movie doesn’t fail to point out by recalling the moment in Unbreakable when Joseph Dunn threatens his father with a gun, believing him to be invincible. The truth would break the heart of the kid who pulls the revolver on Superman — despite his relative popularity with the Saturday morning serial crowd, and his occasionally advantageous affair with the wife of the MGM chief, Reeves is in truth a miserable guy: perpetually frustrated, dissatisfied, uncertain. The movie’s portrait of him is honest (regardless of whether it is accurate) and unsentimental.
Hollywoodland threatens to collapse under its own weight in the oddly lengthy third act, which culminates in what must be about half a dozen endings. The portentousness ultimately becomes a bit much, but for a while it keeps things tense, and the film remains an interesting experiment. Biopics are boring, but this sort of rampant dramatization is fun.