A Failure to Communicate
Hollywoodland / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | September 11, 2006 | Comments ()
Only people who live or work in Hollywood think of the dirt, grime, tourists, gaudy veneer, and occasional glimpses of hookers down on Santa Monica. No, when most people think of Hollywood, they think of an era as much as the place: the golden age of the 1940s and ’50s, when stars were under contract and the town exuded a slick confidence that hid all manner of secret sins. The filmic allure of sex and scandal is infinitely more enticing when imagined as being from that era, when men wore hats, women wore cones, and everyone smoked like it was going out of style. Stories like L.A. Confidential remain popular because they take place in that magic hour when Los Angeles was still defining itself and when people still could believe that movie stars might be better than normal people, that brief moment when the die was cast but before it had cooled. It’s that moment of sad promise that Allen Coulter’s ambitious but disjointed Hollywoodland seeks to explore and, though it succeeds for the most part, the film’s relative failures are just as interesting as the parts that work.
It’s 1959, and Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is a private eye working out of a dumpy apartment he shares with his assistant/girlfriend, Kit (Caroline Dhavernas). Screenwriter Paul Bernbaum doesn’t exactly go out of his way to give Simo any depth: He’s got an ex-wife, a young boy growing distant and disillusioned by his parents’ split, a drinking problem, etc. He’s even manipulative, going so far as to string along a client who suspects his wife of adultery just to keep cashing the poor guy’s checks. Simo finds out from an ex-partner that George Reeves (Ben Affleck), an actor best known for his role as TV’s Superman, has died, an apparent suicide, and that Reeves’ mother suspects foul play. The hint of press coverage and brushes with fame are all Simo needs to sweet-talk the mother into hiring him to investigate Reeves’ death. At this point, Coulter flashes back to Reeves’ life in the ’40s, with his career at a crossroads: He’d appeared in Gone with the Wind and a few minor successes, but had yet to capture the public’s eye with “The Adventures of Superman.” The rest of the film plays out between the two story arcs with at times a minimum of connection: The plot lines are working toward the same event — Reeves’ questionable suicide — but there’s no feeling of immediacy or consequence: Reeves is doomed to die, while Simo is almost pathologically unable to come to any real conclusions about anything.
Reeves’ career begins to pick up when he meets Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of MGM general manager Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), who maintains a fairly open relationship with her husband, and so takes on Reeves as her boyfriend. Toni buys him a house, clothes, jewelry, the works: Reeves is a kept man, but he still wants to make it as an actor. His agent, Art (the always enjoyable Jeffrey DeMunn), scrapes up an audition for the “Superman” series, and Reeves loathes the part from the moment he gets it. Affleck emits a palpable charm as Reeves, and conveys a genuine sense of regret as he takes the only work he can get and begins to resent his image as a jokey television superhero. All of this is intercut with Simo’s ongoing investigation into the murkier aspects of Reeves’ death: the bruises on the body, multiple shots fired at the scene, and the multiple suspects, each with a legitimate motive. There’s Eddie the jealous husband, for starters, and also Reeves’ girlfriend and one-time fiancÃ©e, Leonore (Robin Tunney). It’s to Coulter’s credit that Simo’s detective work is primarily just that: He doesn’t get in any shootouts or even carry a weapon, there are no car chases, and Simo even gets beat up by anonymous paid hoods when he begins to close in on what might have actually happened to Reeves. Coulter is willing to let Simo get on with the dull, grueling business of solving the case; unfortunately, the movie gets in the way.
Bernbaum’s bloated script winds up placing more emphasis on vague ideas of ambience than on any actual meaningful bits of dialogue or interplay. At one point, Simo accuses Eddie Mannix of engineering Reeves’ death, shouting, “There’s blood on your hands!” Eddie coolly responds: “My hands? I’m in the picture business.” What does that even mean? It’s the kind of generic but perfect pseudo-noir dialogue that so suits the film that I doubt anyone will notice, or care.
Still, the packed cast does quite a job with the script they’ve been given. I mentioned Affleck earlier, and I’ll do it again: His Reeves, though occasionally gimmicky and the victim of a fluctuating accent, is always watchable, and in some instances downright magnetic. Affleck works through a slow decline as Reeves slowly accepts the limits of his career and the bizarre pitfalls that come with being Superman: Not only can’t he land decent parts, he also has to deal with legions of children as the only supporters of his work. At a live appearance, Reeves drinks and smokes offstage while joking with the crew about the idiocy of the job, only to have one of the boys in the audience later approach him carrying a real gun, asking if he can shoot Superman to prove the hero’s invulnerability. In an instant, Affleck grows serious, and worried, and there’s even a glint of regret that he’d never be in this position if it weren’t for the damn job to begin with; this is easily the best thing Affleck’s ever done (though given his rÃ©sumÃ©, that’s not saying a whole lot.) Hoskins chews scenery when he gets a chance, and Lane tries to bring humanity to what is essentially a caricature. Brody is cool and low-key, though there’s no indication that Simo’s actually up to the task of unraveling the mystery: His past work is mentioned, but never any specific cases. He also bumbles the other cases he’s got going on, which hurts his credibility as a character. After all, how are we supposed to believe he’s pursuing the real truth when he can’t do anything else right?
The dueling stories often make Hollywoodland feel like two separate films in search of greater meaning: One film is a brassy detective thriller about a lonesome private dick chasing a murder and possible cover-up that extends throughout Hollywood; the other is a soberly paced drama about the trappings of fame and one man’s sad descent into a life he never really wanted. But by attempting to merge the two, Coulter winds up with an ungainly film that never seems to know what it wants. It strives at times to be a period drama with elements of a crime thriller, and also to be a potboiler with poetic flourishes. And here’s the kicker: They’re both good movies. Just incomplete ones.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.