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Hollywoodland ***½

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Affleck soars as Hollywoodland's Man of Steel.

(Courtesy of SFStation.com) 

Starring: Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, Robin Tunney, Bob Hoskins. Rated R.

The death of George Reeves, the actor who first turned Superman into a TV icon, has been shrouded in mystery ever since the Beverly Hills Police Department deemed it a suicide in 1959. Hollywoodland, a stylish slice of noir informed by the same acerbic wit that produced classics of the genre like Chinatown and The Big Sleep, reopens the case and searches for answers. Naturally, it doesn’t find any – a lamentable, if unavoidable, downside to any true-crime tale steeped in murky facts. Even so, it poses a series of intriguing questions.

Did Reeves, whose hot-and-cold career was once again on the upswing, retire to his bedroom one night and impulsively kill himself? Or was it more likely that he was murdered by his hot-tempered fiancée, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney)? His jilted ex, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane)? Or her jealous husband, M.G.M. studio heavy Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins)? These are the questions that haunt Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), the down-and-out private investigator who’s paid to prove it was murder.

Like most of Hollywood’s hard-boiled dicks, Simo is a something of a misfit, a bottom-feeder who spends his days spying on cheating spouses. He’s not exactly a tough guy – Brody is too wispy to satisfy that requirement, though his determination is steely enough. But he comes to regard the case as a shot at redemption, as if his single-minded pursuit of an invisible killer will fill some void in his soul. In Reeves he finds a kindred spirit: a publicity-hungry dreamer whose reach was greater than his grasp, and whose personal life was bedeviled by failed romances and booze. Simo attacks the case with the ferocity of a latter-day Jake Gittes, but for all his dogged effort, there is no rich dramatic payoff.

How could there be? Unlike Chinatown, another complicated whodunit that was neatly wrapped up within the pages of Robert Towne’s brilliantly conceived script, Hollywoodland draws inspiration from a historical model that lends itself only to theory and conjecture. Lacking resolution, director Allen Coulter’s big-screen debut moves slowly but steadily toward a dramatically frustrating dead end, obsessively re-enacting Reeves’ death like a long-form version of Unsolved Mysteries – the TV show that, coincidentally or not, dedicated an episode to this very case.

Yet it works, more or less. There is real poignancy in Reeves’ desperate desire to be the next Clark Gable, and though Simo’s own struggles are never quite as compelling, the perceived connection between the two men – the force that compels Simo to persevere – seems real enough. And yes, there’s redemption in the offing for Brody’s slumming detective, but he’s not alone. Just as Hollywoodland revives the legend of the original Superman, so too does it resuscitate the career of its beleaguered star, Ben Affleck.

Affleck, who has been widely written off after star-making turns in Dazed and Confused, Good Will Hunting and Chasing Amy, rebounds here with a deft performance as Reeves, who craved stardom but wanted to achieve it on his own terms – in other words, without a red cape and tights. Here, Affleck keeps the Man of Steel’s frustrations hidden just below the surface, precariously masked by a cool veneer of suave charm. Alongside Lane, who brings the perfect mix of needy vulnerability and world-weary toughness to her role as Reeves’ aging seductress, he presents a convincing portrait of a man headed for a fall. How he fell, we’re left to wonder.

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