September 14, 2006

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Hollywoodland (R)
Ben Affleck plays an actor never fully appreciated for his talents in Hollywoodland, a cool dip in the pool of 1950s Los Angeles glamour.

George Reeves (Affleck) earned success and a good living as TV’s Superman but he couldn’t find his self-respect. On June 16, 1959, he went upstairs in his house and put a bullet into his head.

Or did he?

Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is a down-on-his-luck detective who weasels an introduction to Reeves’ mother. She tells him she believes her son was murdered and, looking for good pay and a headline-grabbing case, Louis decides to investigate. He talks to Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), Reeves gold-digging fiancée, and to their friends. He talks to people about Reeves’ relationship with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of a powerful MGM executive. And Louis imagines different methods of Reeves’ death — accidental shooting by an angry Leonore, murder by a jealous Toni, murder by an even more jealous Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), Toni’s husband.

Woven into scenes of Louis’ investigation (and his own crumbled marriage and attempts to stay connected to his son) are scenes from Reeves’ life. Even with the comfortable fame that came to him from TV, Reeves was always, it seemed, a few steps removed from the real lead-role success he hungered for.

Affleck is, here, perfect. Yes, you can make your Gigli jokes. You can point out that he is mostly famous for being the best friend of a talented actor and the ex-boyfriend of a famous beauty and so he’s intimately plugged in to the emotions of a guy like George Reeves. And you’d be right — maybe. Heck, who knows what Affleck could really do when he isn’t in movies like Daredevil.

This was certainly Reeves’ belief about himself, at least according to the film. He was a Clark Gable guy (Reeves was one of the first people on-screen in Gone with the Wind) in a world that was slowly becoming more about Marlon Brando and James Dean. He was a handsome face but not a drop-dead handsome face. Like the serials he starred in, he was an approximation of Hollywood glamour — star-like but not a star.

Hollywoodland works particularly well as a melancholy tale of Hollywood stardom because Reeves, the guy who dies at the beginning of the film, is perhaps the best developed of the characters. Brody’s Louis remains the messy collection of noir stereotypes that we believe him to be in the film’s first scenes. His personal problems, his skirting of the line between honest detective and bottom feeder — these scenes just muddle the film. Likewise, the movie really leaves it to you as to whether you believe Reeves was murdered or not (though there’s plenty of strong-arming and tough-guy behavior to make you think that, at least, someone didn’t want the question being asked no matter the answer). Only in its study of the sad, dreamy Reeves does the movie offer clarity and in doing so it offers Affleck the first meaty role he’s had in a while. B

— Amy Diaz


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