Looking at “Hollywoodland”, one gets the notion that had they decided to premiere it on HBO instead of trying their luck in a limited theatrical run, it would’ve had much better chances for awards glory. There’s something to admire about this noirish tale of the death of 1950’s TV Superman George Reeves, even if it isn’t sure what that is. The film effectively recreates that era of 1950’s Los Angeles complete with rundown housing and requisite grit, whilst the actual mystery and life of its subject matter is both tragic and interesting enough to be explored.
Yet it stumbles with a mixed bag of performances, an obvious lack of budget and cinematic knowledge, and the fact that whilst it makes the life of Reeves quite watchable and even touching, it can’t do the same for his death. Switching back and forth between two time periods, the more successful are the trips to the past. It’s here where the film’s biggest surprise lays – Ben Affleck. Here’s a good looking guy who’s always been an alright actor, but short of one or two early pieces of work (Good Will Hunting, Chasing Amy) has more often than not been just been plain banal. At times in fact, most notably 2002’s “The Sum of All Fears”, he’s been the main Achilles heel which otherwise messes up a solid production.
In “Hollywoodland” however, he almost single-handedly saves the film. The richly glowing flashbacks chart Reeves rise as budding star to household icon to typecast has-been. These scenes are alive with an energy, off beat humour, and tonally hit all the right marks in conveying the shady deals done above and below the table to work in the Hollywood industry. Maybe because he himself can find similarities to the man, the role has Affleck playing to his strengths – giving him range but never going too far.
Affleck himself is refreshing laid-back, natural, self deprecating, intense and haggard where he needs to be. Reeves is also quite fairly portrayed – a low-talent but charming opportunist who has big dreams that he doesn’t have the chops to pull off, though he won’t stop trying even if it costs him real chances at happiness. It’s a refreshing lesson in the way the promise of fame not only spits up and chews out the pride and principles of not just the eccentrics or the depraved, but everyday hard working regular people with ambition beyond their means. That the cost of pursuing a Hollywood dream, most of which either fail or never achieve the level one hopes, can involve throwing away not your soul but much of your life.
Whilst he may have previously done some great work, Adrien Brody spends most of the film moping around as the unlucky PI investigating the mystery. His lethargic turn draws out his already overly long scenes, all of which are compounded by dud subplots about deadbeat dads. In contrast to his tedium, the normally reliable Diane Lane overdoes it as actress turned mogul wife Toni Mannix. Early on Lane hams up her scenes to the point of a bad Gloria Swanson impersonator, though as the film progresses in some of the quieter and darker scenes she nails the character’s icy cold narcissism right on the head.
Director Allen Coutler, who’s had success in the TV realm, tries the cinematic approach here with mixed results. Coulter understands certain things and does them well – all the minor supporting parts are perfectly cast (Hoskins, DeMunn and most notably Joe Spano do excellent but small turns). The constant switching between time periods and subplots within both is never confusing, whilst the slightly convoluted plot is quite easy to follow. Production design, cinematography, music is all solid (though not exceptional) across the board.
Yet often there’s a definite small screen feel to it. Too many close ups, confined conversations, and notable attempts to hide budgetary deficiencies by slipshot methods of filming and writing make the whole film feel almost claustrophobic. For each interesting little character aside such as Reeves grieving but ultimately opportunistic mother, there’s a stock part that’s so cliche (eg. Tunney’s starlet) and rote it feels clunky and not befitting the rest of the production. Other subplots are left hanging in the air, and some characters are woefully underutilised (Hoskins most notably).
Finally the mystery itself is just not that compelling, Brody’s attempts at uncovering information yields uninteresting answers and proves pointless. Worse yet are some Rashomon-style flashbacks attempting to picture murder scenarios that are so poorly executed they’re almost laughable. Had we been made to care for Brody’s character as much as we had Reeves, and had the film been done with a tighter and more cinematically astute approach this could’ve been a real winner. As such it’s still a solid piece which works well and raises interesting questions, even if ultimately it has little to say.