Melancholy takes a dive
Hollywoodland is a period neo-noir whose basic premise is that we associate the late Forties and early Fifties with failure and melancholy. It's a true story, that the man who played Superman on TV killed himself. Why? Or was there foul play? The movie weaves a complex spell by alternating between recaps of the actor's life and a maverick private dick's attempts to ferret out the truth about his death. Ben Affleck is the actor, George Reeves; Adrien Brody is the detective, Louis Simo. This is really the story of multiple failures. While Reeves is embarrassed by being supported by his mistress Toni (Diane Lane), wife of tough MGM boss Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), detective Simo too is haunted by a failed marriage and a career that's turned bad on him. Incidentally Brody and Affleck, the latter more dramatically, suffer in real life from a recent past that has Oscar glitter in it that's gone stale with less brilliant performances since. Ben Affleck was brave to take the less than heroic role of would-be star and TV loser Superman George Reeves; his pal Matt Damon has seemed to leave him in the dust since their golden moment of the Best Screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting in 1998. Damon took interesting, edgy roles, nabbed the classy Bourne actioner franchise and shares the glitter of buddies George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Soderbergh's Oceans remakes while Affleck mostly has had neither good roles nor big box office. George Reeves, whose career has gone nowhere since a minor role in Gone with the Wind, may be embarrassingly close to Affleck's own fate. But Affleck's gamble pays off in a good performance -- already rewarded by a prize at the Venice Festival. Diane Lane is well cast as aging beauty Toni who's as glamorous and brave as she can be as a woman whose husband has a girlfriend and whose boyfriend is going nowhere.
The essence of Hollywoodland is that it's a kind of messy meditation. The constant alternation between flashbacks to Reeves' life and Simo's punchy investigation keeps giving us time to savor the contrast and think back on what's just been shown and question the reality or meaning of it. Simo keeps getting beaten up by flunkies of the studio boss who want him to stop stirring up trouble. As in Chinatown, there's a female client, this time Reeves' mother, whose story is not to be trusted. When we see Reeves flail about looking for other work and get interested in another woman quite without Toni's polish, but younger, we don't know who he is and he doesn't either. Simo seems to be trying to redeem his failed life with his destructive search for truth. Alternative possibilities are shown in an almost Rashomon-like narrative of the actor's demise.
All this is subtle and rich, and this is a movie that slowly grows on you. But it happens just a little bit too slowly. The languorous pacing is one reason why this movie never develops the zing of an L.A. Confidential or the wit and resonance of a Chinatown. These are evoked enough so the comparison has to be made, and the new movie doesn't measure up. Sometimes the music even sounds too like Chinatown's. Nice as the mood of Hollywoodland is, there's really no comparison with Polanski's Seventies classic. Characters aren't as vivid, dialogue isn't as sharp. There are few truly powerful scenes. Reeves/Affleck's character, who actually does slip off the wires in a Superman shoot and crash to the floor, falls flat. The moment is truthful, but too much a metaphor for the whole film.
©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/