Hollywoodland (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The question of whether actor George Reeves committed suicide or was murdered will go down in history as one of Hollywood's great unsolved mysteries. Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland, a fictionalized account (it uses both apocryphal stories and confirmed events) of an investigation of the death, presents the three most common scenarios but, taking a page from Rashomon, it never settles on one. The film is balanced in its presentation of the evidence for and against suicide. Ultimately, however, Hollywoodland is only peripherally about the life and death of George Reeves. The film's real main character is a seedy P.I. who attacks the mystery and, by chasing Reeves' ghost, finds his own path to redemption.

Comparisons between Hollywoodland and Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential are perhaps inevitable. After all, both take place during the same time period (the 1950s) and in the same locale (Los Angeles). They both also contain mystery/thriller elements. However, the differences are as stark as the similarities. L.A. Confidential was a color homage to noir films while Hollywoodland is a more subdued drama and, while the new movie does a good job of capturing the period, it lacks the immersive quality of L.A. Confidential's atmosphere. Still, the savvy film-goer can be forgiving for flashing back to L.A. Confidential (or even Chinatown) once or twice during the course of Hollywoodland's proceedings.

The movie unfolds across two time lines. The primary one starts on June 16, 1959, the day of George Reeves' death, and continues through a period spanning roughly one week. It follows the trail of private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a fictionalized representation of the real-life Jerry Geisler, as he convinces Reeves' mother to hire him to investigate her son's passing. The official explanation of the death is suicide but Simo puts forth an alternative. All the clues don't add up - maybe it was murder. At first, he really doesn't believe this. It's just a way to get his name in the papers. However, as he digs deeper and meets some of the principals of the case, he begins to wonder. Eventually, he attracts the ire of mob-connected film mogul Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), and things go from bad to worse.

The secondary time line begins in the late 1940s and concludes in 1959. It introduces us to the handsome, charismatic Reeves (Ben Affleck) in his pre-Superman days. As his life story for the next ten years is told, we meet various people who circulate into and out of his life, including his long-time mistress, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane) - Eddie's wife - and his eventual fiancée, Lenore Lemmon (Robin Tunney). Despite starring in the immensely popular Superman TV series during the 1950s, Reeves is not a happy man. He has not been well-paid for the job, and it results in hopeless typecasting.

There have always been three primary theories about Reeves' death during the early morning hours of June 16, 1959. The first is that, in an alcohol-induced daze and despondent over the lack of movement in his career, he shot himself. This is what the official record indicates. Another possibility is that, during an argument, Lenore accidentally shot him, then used the 45 minutes between Reeves' death and her call to the police to stage a suicide. A third possibility is that Eddie Mannix hired someone to eliminate Reeves because of problems the actor was causing in his marriage. Hollywoodland examines all three scenarios but in the movie, as in real life, no definitive answers are to be found. Unlike Auto Focus, another movie about the life and death of a famous TV personality (Bob Crane of Hogan's Heroes), Hollywoodland does not "pretend" to know the truth.

Hollywoodland's emotional impact comes not from the Reeves-centered flashbacks, which are dry although interesting, but from Simo's story. He and his wife, Laurie (Molly Parker), are divorced, but he has an ongoing love/hate relationship with her that characterizes the interaction between many ex-spouses. He loves his son, but there's an invisible wall interfering with their communication. He's living with a much younger women (Caroline Dhavernas) in a seedy motel, and his clients include riff-raff and sleazebags. His goal as a private investigator is to string along customers for as long as possible so they will keep paying him. Hollywoodland is about how Simo's biggest case causes him to re-examine his life and perhaps change its direction.

The casting is interesting. Adrien Brody has no difficulty portraying the unsavory P.I. Diane Lane appears comfortable in the part of an older woman. And Bob Hoskins is in familiar territory as the dangerous, loud-talking Mannix. Then there's Ben Affleck, who has chosen this project as his attempt to return from the brink of tabloid overexposure. There's no faulting Affleck's acting in Hollywoodland, but one can question whether he's right for the part. Even in full Superman costume or wearing Clark Kent's spectacles, he bears no resemblance to Reeves. For those familiar with Reeves' visage, it elevates the suspension of disbelief curve, although the strength of Affleck's portrayal should eventually win over doubters.

Director Allen Coulter is a TV veteran but a motion picture newcomer. His work here indicates he is someone to watch. The pacing is slow and deliberate, but the story never ceases to intrigue. There are a few narrative hiccups and there are times when changes between the time lines are not immediately apparent, especially as the older one dovetails with the "present," but these are minor issues and do not erase the movie's compelling qualities. This is a fine opportunity to peer through a window into the unglamorous side of Tinseltown's golden years.

Hollywoodland (United States, 2006)

Director: Allen Coulter
Cast: Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins, Robin Tunney, Joe Spano, Molly Parker, Caroline Dhavernas
Screenplay: Paul Bernbaum
Cinematography: Jonathan Freeman
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 2006-09-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1