Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, September 13, 2006
On June 16, 1959, Superman died.
George Reeves, the actor who portrayed Superman in the television serial, committed suicide in his home, three days before he was to get married. A seemingly open-and-shut case was complicated by the absence of a suicide note and the unfinished projects that could have reignited the flagging star’s career.
Over 40 years later, director Alan Coulter reopens the case in “Hollywoodland,” which traces the detective Louis Simo (a composite of real-life people, played by Adrien Brody) as he investigates the possibility of foul play in the suicide of Superman (Ben Affleck).
Nominally, “Hollywoodland” is a murder movie, an investigation about the possible killing of a celebrity, but it’s not ultimately about that.
Instead, the film poses more questions than it answers, presenting at least three different scenarios that could have occurred.
Did Reeves actually commit suicide or was it murder? If it was murder, who was the killer and why? And as the plot thickens, was it the wealthy old benefactor? The angry husband? The jealous fiancee? Simo becomes entrenched in the times of Reeves, to the extent that it begins to take a toll on his own personal life. Thankfully, the film never collapses into a typical whodunit, framing the investigation around Reeves’ life and Simo’s own personal demons.
“Hollywoodland” gets its noir-ish period piece quality exactly right – it’s not inconceivable to believe that this film and “LA Confidential” exist in the same narrative world. Coulter gets all the little touches correct, from the cameras to the cars to the clothing, and it all adds to the atmosphere quite nicely.
The film continuously cuts back and forth between Reeves’ life and Simo’s investigation. This is a little problematic, since Reeves’ life is more compelling than Simo’s, though Brody’s command of the screen hasn’t diminished. The final scenes are affecting, even if it seems that Coulter has lost interest in the plot and is more concerned with Simo’s character.
“Hollywoodland” is anchored by fantastic acting, most notably the subdued (as always) Brody and a surprisingly affecting Affleck. Reeves, as a character, is given the most emotional weight and Affleck delivers, proving that Kevin Smith isn’t the only one who can direct him.
Affleck doesn’t look or sound anything like the real Reeves, but he does show the same heroic charisma and machismo that propelled the actor to television fame.
Accordingly, Affleck won the Best Actor Award at the highly respected Venice Film Festival, a turn of events which is sad and ironic, considering Reeves’ own tragic career.
“Hollywoodland” is the first of two major films this year that deal with Tinseltown murders – the other is Brian DePalma’s upcoming “The Black Dahlia.”
Coulter’s approach is ambitious, and though he doesn’t fully hit the mark, the film is moving and transcends its simplistic origins. His choices manage to avoid clichÃ© – and though brave – cause the film to drag at times.
Not everything in “Hollywoodland” works, and this is easily attributable to lack of focus, though the film could have alleviated this had Coulter understood that it is Reeves, not Simo, who is the heart of this picture.
The best parts of “Hollywoodland” are about Reeves, and the film might have been better if it were only about him, a fallen, all-too-human icon whose sad death was a tragic reminder that no man is invincible, no matter how Super.