As we move into fall, when Hollywood rolls out a parade of shameless Academy bait, the fixers are attempting to position Hollywoodland as a hard-boiled noir throwback. Like the movies it's clearly trying to emulate, Hollywoodland presents a revisionist take on a footnote of Golden State history: Was George Reeves, erstwhile Superman, truly a suicide?
Adrien Brody plays Louis Simo, a weirdly antsy private dick. When George Reeves' bereaved mother approaches Simo about the supposed suicide of her son, his mock investigation rapidly escalates into a genuine obsession.
Photographed in warmed-over sepia, the antithesis of noir's hard contrasts, Hollywoodland struggles mightily to evoke both grit (Simo's story) and glamour (frequent flashbacks to George Reeves' life and hypothetical ends). Alternate explanations for Reeves' death proliferate, but if none of these possibilities hold much interest, the odd, backward-looking atmosphere must be held partly to blame.
In an uncharacteristically nuanced performance, Ben Affleck presents George Reeves as a sensitive man trapped in insensitive circumstances. Reeves plays Superman, a near parody of American beefcake, but only on the sissified small screen. (At one point, as he pretends to fly through a shallow studio set, the wires snap, and he collapses to the ground in an undignified heap.) Reeves hobnobs with Hollywood greats, but only in the guise of a kept man. His mistress (played beautifully by Diane Lane) even buys him his house. In other words, he's loved for his body, not his earning power.
True, maybe a movie that dwelled more on Reeves' crisis of masculinity might have just been annoying. But all the interesting parts of Hollywoodland are bound up in this little personal drama, where what qualifies as "evidence" can extend to a Super-8 movie indicating Superman may have been suffering from clinical depression. The detective aspect, less than ably anchored by Adrien Brody, feels perfunctory in comparison. Forget hard-boiled—Hollywoodland is unevenly poached.