Judge Brendan Babish thinks being the best Ben Affleck film in 10 years is like being valedictorian of summer school.
Living in Hollywood can make you famous. Dying in Hollywood can make you a legend.
Taking full advantage of the buzz created by Superman Returns, Hollywoodland is a mystery that questions whether the death of George Reeves, the original Man of Steel, was really a suicide, as the authorities attest, or murder.
Facts of the Case
In the early 1950s, young George Reeves (Ben Affleck, Gigli) was an ambitious young actor who seemed primed for stardom. He had a small role in Gone With the Wind, the biggest box office hit of all time, and was carrying on an affair with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane, Must Love Dogs) the wife of the head of MGM studios. On a lark, Reeves auditions for the lead in a corny serial entitled "Adventures of Superman." Surprisingly, the show becomes a huge success, and Reeves finds himself unable to be taken seriously in dramatic roles. This lack of respectability leads to depression, as well as the dissolution of his relationship with Mannix. On June 16, 1959 Reeves is found dead in the bedroom of his Beverly Hills home with what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
But private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody, The Pianist) isn't so sure. In addition to the forensic evidence suggesting foul play, there is no shortage of suspects who might have wanted Reeves dead.
I'm not sure if there's ever a great time to release a true crime noir picture, but surely having The Black Dahlia and Hollywoodland come out within a week of each other negatively affected both films. Personally, I had trouble remembering which one was which, and after each received lackluster reviews I felt no qualms ignoring both. However, when The Black Dahlia was released on DVD a few weeks ago several sources indicated Hollywoodland to be the clearly superior movie. If this is true, then I imagine Dahlia must be a dreadful film.
This is not to say that Hollywoodland is necessarily bad. One could also note that it's the best Ben Affleck film in about 10 years, but that's not saying much either. Hollywoodland is a competent, periodically engaging mystery flick that still seems destined for obscurity. It's hard to pinpoint what exactly holds the film back, but the film's bloated running time certainly does it no favors.
Of course, there is no inherent problem with a mystery running over two hours. One of the greatest detective films of all time, Chinatown, is four minutes longer than Hollywoodland. However, Chinatown has a clear, tight storyline, while Hollywoodland suffers under the burden of four separate plots. In addition to the dual storylines of George Reeves's rise and fall as an actor, which is effectively crosscut with Louis Simo's investigations into his death, there are two subplots involving Simo that hamper the movie's momentum: one is a short, intriguing, but ultimately unnecessary subplot involving one of Simo's cuckolded clients. The other, far more distracting subplot depicts Simo's domestic problems involving a disgruntled ex-wife, neglected child, and an unfaithful girlfriend. These scenes seemed constructed to give Simo added depth, which might help entice a big name actor to the role, but seem especially drab when contrasted with the entertaining murder mystery at the heart of the movie.
Indeed, the 90 minutes of the film that detail Reeves's life, his rise, his fall, and the alleged cover-up of his murder, is engrossing cinema. Director Allen Coulter, in his first feature film, successfully recreates mid-century Los Angeles, and the depiction of the film industry—its fleeting glamour and excessive heartache—rings true. All the characters seem both sympathetic and despicable, and this makes for an intriguing murder mystery. And the actors capably handle the duality of their characters, in a series of strong performances.
Of course, Ben Affleck received the most plaudits for playing the doomed Reeves. Honestly, I didn't see it. In a cast full of great actors, Affleck does manage to hold his own, barely. I suppose with a talent like this that is quite an achievement for Affleck, and he does manage to rise above the low expectations his previous work has established. However, Brody and Lane give such natural, seemingly effortless performances that they seem to be downgraded for simply utilizing their superior natural talent. Lane actually gives the best performance, as an aging trophy wife who manages to be alternately alluring and pathetic.
Ultimately, Hollywoodland is a proficient noir that could have been so much better with twenty fewer minutes. Still, the film should keep you entertained, though it probably won't advance much further than your short-term memory banks.
For a film with such a disappointing box office—it brought in just over $14 million—Universal has done a fairly good job with the DVD release of Hollywoodland. Coulter provides an impassioned commentary track, in which we can hear his enthusiasm for the project and meticulous detail in filmmaking. Additionally, there are three brief featurettes that provide historical background on Los Angeles of the 1950s as well as the true story of Reeves and the mystery surrounding his death. Lastly, there are five minutes of deleted scenes that mostly center on Simo and his investigation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Adrien Brody gives a fine performance here, and indeed he is probably one of the most gifted actors of his generation. Still, I will never understand why—directly after winning an Oscar—he chose to appear in a series of ads for Diet Coke. Did they drive with up to his house with a dump truck full of cash? Was he burdened by excessive credibility? Though this had no material affect on Hollywoodland, whenever I see Brody I get rankled by that inexplicable decision.
Hollywoodland is a mildly entertaining noir flick, but still not good enough to arrest the slow downward spiral of Ben Affleck's career. Maybe he'll have better luck behind the camera; we'll see when his directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone is released later this year.
Hollywoodland is guilty of crafting a good detective yarn, then adding 30 minutes of unnecessary domestic strife. Save that stuff for the Lifetime channel.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Allen Coulter
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