The heist of a lifetime
Tom Greener, Kage Mulligan, and Floyd Benson are forgotten stars whose lives and careers have seen better days. When a mutual acquaintance has a fatal accident, they meet up and discover a common admiration/desperation society. Greener has a script, written by his ex-girlfriend, that he is sure will put them back on the map. All they need is financing, and they find it in the guise of Benson's new employer: a gangster named Rodney (?). The threesome stumbles across some of Rod's unfinished "business," i.e. a corpse, high in the Hollywood hills, and a plan begins to hatch. Bugging devices are placed in the house (along with the alarm system that Benson has been installing) and it's not long before the reason for the rough stuff is revealed: Rodney and his crew are sitting on $9 million they have stolen from a Las Vegas casino. With the help of an unexpected ally from the past and over a century of acting talent, the guys devise a scheme to steal the money. But as with any big scale, multi-million dollar "abduction," unforeseen delays and problems in execution arise. Unfortunately, if these once mighty thespians can't give the performances of their lives, their future in show business is unimportant. They'll be dead!
The Hollywood Sign starts off looking and feeling like it will be a real winner, an unknown sleeper that suddenly awakens to declare its brilliance and entertainment value upon a totally unaware DVD audience. And for an hour, it all clicks wonderfully into place. Combining the quirks of a Twin Peaks/Mulholland Dr. narrative/visual style with the deep dark insider humor of The Player, The Hollywood Sign invites us into the fabled land of instant stardom and even faster obscurity, where you are only as viable as your last box office success and as interchangeable as the lowest bit player. We meet oddball characters, witness bizarre events, and crawl deep inside the seedy, sad side of L.A. Everything interweaves and accents the tone of rich black satire and the complicated plot moves along smoothly without resorting to outlandish coincidence or blatant disregard for the audience's intelligence. Within its crime/caper confines, The Hollywood Sign offers an emotional and sometimes breathtaking look at fame on the skids. The last time famed icons Rod Steiger and Burt Reynolds worked together (on a similar theme) was in the horrendous hack The Final Hit. Everything that film got wrong this one revamps and redefines brilliantly. Reynolds even gives the performance of his career, one better than his porn daddy Hugh Hefner in Boogie Nights. He creates a complete, well-defined character, not just some variation on his whole smug "Burt" playboy persona. There is a scene where, alone and depressed, he plays a videotape of one of his old films and slowly falls into utter despair. The camera stays on Reynolds the entire time, and watching the bitter tears fall along the face of this broken former screen legend is truly heart wrenching. But it's also par for the course in a film that's filled with intelligent writing, unusual plot twists, and award worthy performances.
Unfortunately, the film stumbles in its last act. There is a long interrogation scene between our bumbling ex-movie stars (playing police officers) and the gangsters. The idea obviously was to build their improvised, desperate comic cop buffoonery into a crescendo of both laughter and suspense. We fear for their lives as we giggle at their goofy chutzpah. But unlike a similar scene in Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman's Dorothy must make up a convoluted backstory to sell his/her cross dressing façade, there is never a truly manic moment reached in The Hollywood Sign. Too much screen time is spent on giving each actor a chance to overtly shine. Steiger is so commanding and serious that all he can be is threatening and Reynolds is gone for half the time, only to reappear and blather on like a total idiot. Tom Berenger, out of his league among these old pros, can only stand back and let the seasoned hams sizzle and smoke. But there is no payoff, no moment of clarity or high comedy. It simply goes on too long and the film never quite recovers. Not that matters are helped much when the filmmakers drag out the by now tired "movie within a movie" ending that so many tightly wound modern screenplays use to get their cast out of unpredictable, impossible circumstances. It almost succeeds, but it also reinforces how far we have wandered from the original, undeniably involving and entertaining movie that we started out with.
It's interesting to note that The Hollywood Sign is a foreign film, by German director Sonke Wortmann and written by Netherlands native Leon de Winter. Their take on Tinseltown and the cannibalistic, criminal nature of show business is vicious, twisted, and refreshing. One needs to thank Lions Gate for rescuing this title from cinematic obscurity. And they can also be commended for the better than usual treatment given here. While there are no extras to speak of (except for a decent, decidedly non-Hollywood trailer), the transfer and sound quality are very good. On this DVD we have an atmospheric, anamorphic widescreen image that suffers from minor artifacting issues during fadeouts and a little night scene compression. But the moody visuals employed are never undermined. From an aural perspective, the film utilizes Dolby Digital 5.1 very nicely, presenting a crisp, clean soundtrack filled with excellent immersive and spatial qualities. It would have been nice to have a little more background on director Wortmann (he has many films to his credit and was even a professional soccer player) and screenwriter de Winter (the film is also based on his novel), as there is a sense that these two foreign artists may have actually lived or seen some of the absurd Hollywood mischief they champion in The Hollywood Sign. Instead of another piece of hackneyed direct-to-DVD garbage, this film is a thoroughly engaging if eventually uneven film of quiet, dignified charm.
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