Sunday, August 27, 2006

Review: Hollywoodland (2006)

120 minutes
Rated R

By Scott Mendelson

There are few things more annoying than a movie that keeps taking us from the story that we care about. We have a fascinating, fictionalized character study of one of the more interesting Hollywood fables, but the film keeps dragging us back into a route, run-of-the-mill film noir mystery. We have a story filled with tragedy, pathos, and potency, but the film seems far more concerned with who-dun-it, even when the culprit is pretty obvious from the get-go.

In 1959, George Reeves, best known for playing Superman on the 1950s television show, apparently shot himself in the head. For a generation of children who knew him only as Superman, this was a traumatic moment. Rumors have long since run rampant, suggesting murder most foul, rather than suicide most tragic. Hollywoodland takes that real life 'mystery' and spins a woefully conventional detective story that spans every bad Spillane cliché. But that murder most boring occasionally takes a backseat to flashbacks to the last several years of Mr. Reeves' life, and those segments provided a moving portrait of a promising actor who came of age at just the wrong time in the film industry.

George Reeves' (Ben Afflick in his best performance since Changing Lanes) career started promisingly with a supporting role in Gone With The Wind. Alas, upon returning home from the war, he found it hard to bounce back. He eventually took a job in a pilot TV show based on the comic book adventures of Superman. The show became a phenomenon and 'serious actor' Reeves was stuck with the fame, but not the fortune,of being beloved hero to children across America.

His eventual demise comes to the attention of a rather low-level private eye, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody, doing what he can to humanize a stock character). Simo's family and career is in shambles, and even his own son is traumatized by the death of the Man Of Steel (his son is devastated that Reeves used a Luger, a Nazi weapon). He hires himself into the services of Reeves' mother, who swears that murder was the cause. From here on in, it's a completely uninvolving investigation route as lovers (Diane Lane, Robin Tunney), friends (Jeffrey DeMunn, pitch perfect as his agent/manager), and duplicitous rich people (Bob Hoskins, boring perhaps for the first time ever as the head of MGM) are suspected in the crime in question. None of this is very compelling, since we all know what probably happened in real life and there is no real flair that separates this from the Reeves segment found on Unsolved Mysteries.

The snippets of the life of George Reeves are fascinating, however. Afflick perfectly captures the tragedy of a career destroyed by the very role that made him a star. One of the earliest victims of television typecasting; Reeves always found it hard to shake off the aura of Superman, a childrens' television role that he may not even have cared for all that much. To an entire generation of television viewers, children and adults alike, there was no line between Superman the character and Reeves the actor (this is demonstrated absolutely in the film's most chilling scene, an event that actually occurred).

Surely Afflick could relate to an actor whose career and credibility was undermined by the public's refusal to separate character from actor, or actor from gossip. Had he been around years earlier, Reeves could have found refuge in the studio system that would have put him in movies at a steady rate. Had he found fame later, he would have found audiences more willing to see their hero in different, more challenging roles. Caught between the two Hollywoods of the 20th century, Reeves never had a chance at breaking out of his world-famous tomb. The final scenes, which go from a sad meeting with manager Arthur Weismann (DeMunn) to the viewing of a key piece of film, are heartbreaking in their subtlety and underscored pathos.

Alas, by presuming that we care about a fictionalized murder mystery over a character study of one of the most famous actors of the last fifty years, Hollywoodland undermines that which makes it unique in the first place. We are stuck with a boring 'mystery' for which the solution is obvious, and thus the conflicts contained unlikely. First time director Allen Coulter should have left the conspiracy theories to the late Robert Stack. Especially when he had a far more fascinating and involving story at his fingertips, waiting to be fully explored.

Grade: C+

1 comment:

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